Earlier this year, as the shock of the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State still towered over the university and the Nittany Lions football program, I listened to a sports talk radio host say that any fans who would attend 2012 games at Happy Valley are “disgusting.”
The apparent social crime? Anyone who could possibly try to move on as a Penn State football fan, anyone who wouldn’t quietly walk away and consign the once-proud program to oblivion would be, in the eyes of some, committing a despicable act. The thought seemed to be that there had to be a necessary period of abandonment and atonement before the stain of the Sandusky crimes — and university officials’ willingness to ignore them — could even begin to be cleaned.
Certainly, to some, the thought of actually playing football games in Beaver Stadium this fall was “disgusting.”
Yet there was a whole group of young men — the Penn State players — who were indeed trying to move on from the scandal. Each and every one of them had absolutely nothing to do with the scandal, yet they were paying a price in terms of lost conference and bowl competition opportunities, lost teammates and having to prove themselves all over again to new coaches.
Penn State, weakened by the loss of players who wanted out of the program, was picked by many college football writers to win perhaps two or three games. New head coach Bill O’Brien, who accepted the Penn State job before the full weight of NCAA sanctions came down in July, was thought to have walked into an impossible situation.
Penn State stumbled in the early season, losing its home opener to Ohio University and then losing on the road against a weak Virginia team. It looked like the writers were right.
But under Coach O’Brien’s calm leadership — and the leadership and play of some of the seniors who decided to stay and finish their careers in Happy Valley — the Nittany Lions offense found more rhythm and the wins started to come. With what some analysts say was the equivalent of an FCS team (Division I-AA back in the day, like a Bucknell or Lehigh), Penn State won eight of its final 10 games to finish 8-4. If a controversial call or two had gone in the Nittany Lions’ favor, the record might have been even better.
And college football fans across the country, not just Penn State fans, learned more about some of the great leaders on the team who, despite the incredible circumstances that led to the sudden fall of the Joe Paterno era, remained with the team and formed the core that managed such a respectable season. Linebacker Michael Mauti, defensive lineman Jordan Hill and quarterback Matt McGloin, a former walk-on, got as much attention for their leadership through the scandal as they did for their play on the field.
On Saturday, I watched as Penn State capped its season with an overtime win over Wisconsin, finding solace in defeating the Badgers even as they will move on to play in the Big 10 championship game because Penn State and Ohio State are not eligible because of sanctions.
There was a lot of emotion on that field and in the stands at Beaver Stadium as the players and fans came together to express their appreciation for one another. The players who were there on Saturday didn’t abandon Penn State; the people in the stands didn’t abandon the players.
Nittany Lions fans felt a lot of things as they watched that final celebration.
You can be certain that disgust wasn’t one of them.
(Jim Eckstrom is managing editor of the Olean Times Herald. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.)