Penn State Football: Players Here, Search for Coach Optional
Penn State’s football players will gather in the theatre-style first floor auditorium of Lasch Building in the next few days to meet their new head coach.
It won’t be all that of an unfamiliar situation.
New year, new semester, new head coach.
For fifth-year guys like Mike Hull, Jesse Della Valle and Miles Dieffenbach, it will be deja blue and white all over again.
The new head coach standing at the front of that room in Lasch Building will be those players' fifth overall since they came to Penn State in August 2010. Three head coaches, two interim head coaches and one large headache. Or so you would think. Incorrectly.
Dieffenbach will be on his fourth offensive line coach, Della Valle his fifth coach in the secondary. There have already been enough strength and conditioning coaches and assistants to cover – 1-2-3, OK, drop ‘em – both hands.
Most of the freshmen remember that room as the place they and their families met with Bill O’Brien on the afternoon of Sunday, July 29, 2012. That was just days after the NCAA sanctions hit. (I had a memorable 10-minute off-the-record telephone conversation with O’Brien an hour before that meeting. That call shall remain private.) They met with O’Brien and then each other, then professed their allegiance. They had yet to come to Penn State, but dammit they weren’t going to leave.
In fact, every one of those 80 or so Penn State players at the meeting with the new coach, at the start of Yet Another New Era, will be there by choice. The upperclassmen could have transferred, with immunity. Same goes for the freshmen.
Most of them came to Penn State in good measure because of the football. But they stayed for the friends, the experience, the education. For the coeds down The Mall when classes change. The locker room. The beverages downtown. The non-stop Xbox.
The Right In-Klinenation
The players, like most students at U.P., love PSU. The good, the bad and the ugly. Or at least they've learned to tolerate the final two. A lot. This was made no clearer than a few days ago, when linebacker Ben Kline wrote an impassioned letter to the Nittany Nation, “On The Heart of Penn State Football,” that appeared on OnwardState.com. In it, he explained that the players played for each other, their university and their forebears. They have respected their coaches, but have loved each other. Here's a link to the entire piece. The final, stirring paragraph is below:
"Rest easy, Nittany Nation. I know the men who constitute our locker room, the men who go to war on Saturdays in the fall, the men who sweat and bleed for this program year round. Our football program is in good hands, no matter who the coach is. It always has been. It always will be. We Are!"
You should also know this about Benjamin Richard Kline: He’s a junior finance major from Dallastown, Pa.; the son of Rick and Lisa; has a 3.94 GPA; is president of the Nittany Lions chapter of Uplifting Athletes; and is sensitive enough to write that letter, yet tough enough to play the entire Minnesota game this year after tearing his pec on the first series of downs.
Now, not every one of the Nittany Lion football players is a Ben Kline. Geez, very few of the 44,000 students at Penn State are either. But his core feelings are those of his teammates as well.
The other day I had the occasion to ask a couple of players how it was going, with O’Brien leaving while they were away and a coaching search commencing with little additional information sent their way. “Read Ben’s letter,” one player said at the end of his thoughtful answer. Another said Penn State has been an experience that he would never trade.
Follow the coach’s search, but root for these players, these students and athletes and just plain kids. They’re not the lucky ones, getting The Coach of The Month or The All-Pro or The Resurrector of Programs. The new head coach should be searching to coach a group like this. Their most recent head coach knew that.
“The kids,” O’Brien said again and again, nothing more consistently or heartfelt in his 724-day tenure. “These are great kids, Penn State kids, kids who are tough and who care.” They are what O’Brien cared most about in his time at Penn State, by far.
That these players are so completely out of the loop doesn’t make them any happier than the fans or the media. Their major wish: Tell us before anyone us. They’ll be twerked off if someone Tweets the name of their new head coach before they get a private, team-only text. Then, their altruism kicks in. They’ve been through the wringer, but what about the freshmen arriving all bright and shiny and new?
Spring semester classes start on Monday. So does offseason strength and conditioning. The two remaining GA’s and three coaches will put the players through their paces. But, in reality, said one player, “We will!”
SEARCH NO MORE
It would have been good and proper and smart if the current team, after all it has been though, had a seat on the search committee. Seven is luckier than six and I bet there’s enough room on the jet for one more. With apologies to some really good folks on that committee, in this case the players have lived it. In unique ways, they know best. They know Penn State.
It’s with that thought – not arrogant, but confident like that car commercial with Eminem a few years ago, where the hottest fire makes the strongest steel – that they, like the rest of us, watch the search with baited breath. In some ways, those players have already been rewarded. The life lessons have been extraordinary. But it seems that many will also get what they want, a leader who has been through what they have, as players, as students, as sanctionees, as Penn Staters.
The magnetic force of caring and camaraderie and belief in each other -- and, ultimately, their university -- that has kept them on campus works in reverse, too, as most of Penn State’s 600,000-plus alumni know. It pulls you back. For all the right reasons, even though the return voyage may come with a price.
That could very well be the most important lesson that is learned this semester, in that team room, even before their first class on Monday morning. A golden opportunity.