Friday, July 27, 2012

This Is Your Team

My daughter is one of the smartest humans I have ever known.  Suzanne is scary smart - up there in the rarified air of my oldest sibling Bill - and perhaps only one or two other people I have ever met.  So when the occasion presents itself on which Suz actively solicits my opinion on something, I take great pride in the inquiry and great measure in the reply.  

On Monday afternoon, she sent me a text message asking for my .02 on the sanctions that the NCAA unloaded upon Penn State University earlier on Monday.  Today, while anticipating at least a penny's worth of change, I offer it.  For those of you who have better things to do on a Friday than spend a moment more than you have to reading that which is written here, my bottom line is this:  I think the NCAA got it right.  Crimes were committed by those entrusted with the leadership of a state university and for those crimes punishment is warranted. 

It is not an exaggeration to say that the NCAA landed hard on Penn State - sparing it from the "Death Penalty" (in which it would have shut down its football program completely for at least one season - ask SMU just how much fun that is) while imposing long-term and far-reaching sanctions.  Sanctions that include payment of a $60 Million fine, which is the revenue generated annually by the PSU football program, a four-year ban on participation in post-season bowl games, a limit of sixty-five players on scholarship per year for the next four years (Division I schools are permitted to have 85 scholarship players on the roster per year) and a cap of fifteen scholarships per year for the next four years (Division I schools are permitted to offer up to 25 scholarships per year) of scholarship players.  The NCAA also applied a giant dab of White-Out to its own record book.  It ordered Penn State to vacate all of its wins from the 1998 season through the 2011 season. 

That "vacation" resulted in the late Joe Paterno being adjusted downward from the winningest coach in Division I college football to the 12th winningest.  Just in case this one makes its way into the next edition of Trivial Pursuit, "Joe Paterno" is the answer to the question, "Which Division I college football coach lost the most consecutive games?"  According to the NCAA's new edition of its rulebook he failed to win a game after the 1997 season.   Predictably and pathetically the late coach's family reacted to the imposition of the sanctions by making this all about Joe Pa.   Paterno's family said in a statement that the sanctions "defame the legacy and contributions of a great coach and educator.  This is not a fair or thoughtful action; it is a panicked response to the public's understandable revulsion at what Sandusky did," the family said.  I keep forgetting that the real victim of what it has now been revealed went on at Penn State for the final two years of the last century and the first DECADE of this one was Joe Paterno.  It was not the young men who were brutalilzed by Sandusky while those positioned to do something to stop Sandusky did nothing.  Silly me, I keep making that mistake.  My thanks to the Paterno family for reminding me that Joe Pa was the "real" victim here.  Note to Jay Paterno and the rest of the family:  STOP TALKING.  Unless of course you have an interest in speaking the truth.  Then by all means feel free to do so. 

An intended consequence of the NCAA's sanctions was the freedom granted to every player in the Penn State program and every young man who is either scheduled to begin playing for them in 2012 or pledged to begin doing so in 2013 to transfer immediately without having to sit out a season.  Simply put, the NCAA has made all of the Penn State players a free agent.  How many of those who comprised its incoming freshman class in 2012 shall remain committed to a program in which they know at the start of their first practice this August they shall not have a chance to compete for a national title or to play in a bowl game for most of - if not all of - their collegiate career?  I would not pretend to know.  I do know this:  whether all of them stay, all of them leave or some stay and some leave will not affect my selfish, personal point of view regarding them.  The choice they make needs to be decidedly selfish.  They need to do only that which is in their best interest - whatever they perceive that to be.  And whatever they decide, they should not be judged harshly by the rest of us.  Their lives belong to each one of them and to each one of them only. 

I know nothing about the new PSU coach Bill O'Brien other than (a) this is his first Division I head coaching job; and (b) he was an assistant coach in the NFL (the Patriots) when he accepted this gig.  That being said, in the first few days of the new world in which he now finds himself as the man in charge of a suddenly-blighted program, I have been very impressed by Coach O'Brien, the manner in which he has carried himself and the things he has said about his future and that of his program.  "I made a commitment to Penn State. I believe in Penn State," he said. "I feel very close to these kids ... they've been dealt with honestly, openly and again we've got a bunch of guys here that want to succeed and do well on and off the field, and I feel close to them."  During a conference call with reporters on Tuesday he told the press what he had spent the better part of the thirty-six hours since the NCAA's decision had been handed up talking to his current players about and the message he had conveyed to them:   "Life is full of adversity. The way you travel through life is how you handle adversity.  I told the guys to think about the guys they're sitting next to in that room."  On the field during the Paterno era, Penn State was more a team I admired than one for which I rooted openly.  I like this O'Brien fellow.  I have no idea how good or bad he will do as a head coach.  He appears to be a no bullshit guy.  To me, he seems impossibly easy to root for - so I intend to do so. 

Time will tell just how many of the young men with whom he shared his feelings during July's final full week will still be wearing a PSU uniform when the Nittany Lions open their 2012 schedule at home against Ohio University on September 1.  There is more than a little part of me that hopes all of them remain with the program.  For while I happen to think the NCAA got it right and took behind the woodshed an institution whose de facto leaders had abdicated their fiduciary duties in a manner that would make the Roman Catholic church blush, I also happen to think that those men, irrspective of their dominance of life in Happy Valley for the past several decades, were never all that Penn State was about and were never all the university represented. 

Skeptical?  I get it.  Feel no obligation to accept my word on the matter.  Not when you can hear it from the lion's mouth.  On Tuesday afternoon Penn State's senior QB Matt McGloin took to Twitter to share his feelings on life in this new era at Penn State.  Here is the story as reported on onwardstate.com.  McGloin sounds like a young man who has his stuff together; right?  He sounds an awful lot like a young man who is ready to face the future, whatever it may bring.  Take the time to click the link to McGloin's statement and read it in its entirety.  It is an extraordinarily worthwhile read.

There are those who shall forever proclaim from July 23, 2012 that the NCAA "killed" Penn State football.  I beg to differ for at least a couple of reasons the first of which is that laying what has happened in Happy Valley at the feet of the NCAA requires one to check common sense and honesty at the door.  Those who brought havoc upon this program, this university and this region were not outsiders but were those who ruled the fiefdom.  Walt Kelly's words proved prophetic yet again, "We have seen the enemy and it is us." 

More pointedly however is that I do not subscribe to the theory that Penn State football is "dead".  It has taken a well-deserved hit but by not killing it, the lords who govern college athletics have presented those who how oversee the university and its football program with an opportunity.  An opportunity to create.  An opportunity to lead.  An opportunity to go forward into uncharted territory and to do so with players like Michael Zordich and Michael Mauti and coaches alike whose commitment to the process has been forged by adversity, which is the greatest elixir any man can ever imbibe.   

The test will come for those who shall wear the uniform from those who do not and who shall not.  Those who call themselves fans and supporters of the program.  It is them who shall be tested and while one reasonably anticipates that at least a small percentage among their number shall reveal themselves to be the front-runners that some of the rest of the tribe had always presumed they were, one also reasonably anticipates that the center will hold and the majority of the faithful will remain just that.  In the words of the great (albeit fictional) Indiana high school hoops coach Norman Dale, "This is your team."  

For all of those who have proclaimed incessantly for years, "WE ARE PENN STATE!" now is your chance to prove it.   On Wednesday morning your new head coach declared on ESPN's "Mike and Mike Show" that he is "In".   An hour or two later, about three dozen of your student-athletes echoed their coach's sentiments.  They are "In".   Are you?

This is your team.   

-AK





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