Image problem: death of the Penn State experience

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jul 23, 2012



(Note: Consider this a rare walk into the personal side of the game with the Cold, Hard Football Facts.)

By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts former Penn State fan


If we suffered the weakness of human emotion, we’d be saddened by the Penn State situation for the damage caused to so many innocent lives – first by skeevy freak pedophile Jerry Sandusky, but later by Joe Paterno and the Penn State powers-that-be, who failed to do the right thing with disastrous results.

The school met its NCAA fate Monday, with a $60 million fine, bowl ban and 111 wins wiped off the slate for the former all-time wins leading coach.

We'd also be saddened because Penn State WAS, for 20 years, our annual foray into the magic of the Grand Old Game and an autumn Saturday afternoon in America.
 
The CHFF crew has road-tripped from Boston to Penn State almost every year since 1991, my senior year at Boston College. The undermanned Eagles were led by first-year head coach Tom Coughlin. But in what's became the Coughlin signature style, his underdog team put up a much better battle than anybody expected, losing 28-21, to the No. 10 Nittany Lions. I was thrilled by the experience at Penn State, thrilled to realize that real big-time football, and all the trappings of pageantry that go with it, were available just an 8-hour drive or so away.

We write mostly about the NFL here at CHFF. But college football is a personal passion. I've been to big-time college football games from coast to coast. But Penn State was the one place we visited year after year, the closest thing to Boston where you find (or found) the big-time experiences that make Saturdays on campus so much more exciting than Sundays at Corporate X Arena.

Here’s the crew (with me 50 pounds ago in blue Penn State T) at the Joe Paterno statue in September 2003.


 
Everyone is smiling. Everyone happy. Thrilled, at the time, to be in the statuesque presence of the Great Joe Paterno.

Now here’s that very same spot today, after Penn State removed Paterno's statue over the weekend, a physical and symbolic statement that the Joe Paterno legacy was very much a sham – or a sham at least since 1998, when he was reportedly largely complicit in covering up Sandusky’s crimes.


 
We took that photo in 2003 because that’s what you did if you were a football fan at Penn State. You celebrated JoePA. You celebrated everything he represented and everything that was good and just in the world – or so we thought.
 
Many of the guys on that 2003 trip had not been to Penn State before. So all weekend, in rare bouts of sobriety, we talked about getting a big group photo at the landmark statue before we headed back to Boston. Few of the guys really cared about Penn State itself. But, like many football fans, they loved what it represented. And they loved the fact that crusty old coach Joe Paterno was still doing it his way.
 
And they loved the fact that the Penn State experience was so electrifying.
 
The crowds at State College were bigger, louder, arrived earlier, partied harder and left later than pro football crowds. (The lots for Saturday games opened Thursday afternoon.) The school provided all the pomp and pageantry that makes college football the Grand Old Game and  that makes the pro football experience second rate by comparison.
 
Oh, and that doesn’t even include the fact that pro football games are sword fights. State College and the aptly named Beaver Stadium meanwhile, were overrun by hot 20 year old girls out for a good time. CHFF pal Benny the Wop befriended like every girl at State College one year. Here's the Wop Man in action before the Ohio State-Penn State game in 2009.



The Kid still has a little game left, too, even in his advanced age, and has made a few friends himself.




One of my favorite State College memories came in October 1997, when No. 2 Penn State hosted No. 7 Ohio State. We got seats in the student section. The place was electric and the Nittany Lions pulled out an intense 31-27 victory after a heavily hyped and hard-fought battle.

But the best was yet to come. Later that night, the entire town was glued to the tube showing the game between No. 1 Florida at No. 14 LSU. The Tigers upset the Gators, 28-21, and kids immediately poured out of barrooms and dorm rooms into the streets of State College.

Remember, Penn State was No. 2 entering the day. Now, with the Florida loss, Penn State was the new No. 1 team in America! We raced from downtown State College to Beaver Stadium. Kids tried to climb fences to get inside and tear down the goal posts. It was an incredible autumn Saturday in Football America. It was the reason you traveled to places like Happy Valley.

I still have somewhere the issue of Sports Illustrated that came out that week, with SEC legend Kevin Faulk on the cover, celebrating LSU's upset of Florida. Little did Faulk and the fans celebrating in Baton Rouge that night realize that they had launched a near-riot in State College, too.



Penn State has now forfeited every victory since 1998. So that win over Ohio State back in 1997, and the celebration that followed was, "officially," one of the last great victories in Penn State football history.

Our last trip to Penn State came the weekend of Nov. 6, 2010. Penn State was hosting Northwestern and Joe Paterno had 399 wins under his belt. We wanted to be there for No. 400 (and also see our CollegeFootballGeek and Football Nation partner Todd DeVries, a PSU guy who said his "world view was shattered" by the scandal).

We rolled out in the PIGSKIN F-150, camping in the bed of the truck parked on the grass fields outside the stadium, partying with 110,000 of our closest friends. The entire town was buzzing over the big landmark victory. State College was still a magical little principality of pigskin at that moment. Little did we know the evil that bubbled beneath all the pageantry and that would puncture the surface, and the mythology, just one year later.




Last year, the plan was to roll out to Penn State for a Big 10 first: Nebraska’s first visit to State College as a Big 10 rival. Looked forward to the big game all year. Nebraska at Penn State! Two legendary college football powers and All-American brands, clashing on a Saturday afternoon in the hills of Central PA. How awesome would that be?

But that was the game played immediately after news of the Sandusky child sex scandal broke. We didn't know the whole story even then ... but already the Penn State experience had lost its magic.
 
We didn't feel the desire to rush out to Penn State with that story lingering over the college football landscape and with the extreme bile and distaste lingering in the pit of our stomachs.

Might be a long time before Penn State ever regains the magic it held as one of the great places to celebrate an autumn Saturday in Middle America. In fact, it probably never will.

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