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Penn State Football: Sorry, But It Isn't Your Father's Penn State Anymore

by on January 12, 2016 7:40 PM
University Park, PA

Just a few days ago I found myself standing in a parking lot talking to someone with years of experience in Penn State athletics.

"I read your column, I thought it was great," the person said. "It's hard for some people to live here though. It's hard."

In this case "the who" is not as important as what was said. I took this person's comment to heart because listening is half the job, while writing and thinking generally make up the rest of your day-to-day obligations as a reporter. If nothing else this particular person has a better understanding of working at Penn State than most, and in this day and age that knowledge is worth something.

But as the news continues to rain (or on Tuesday, snow) down on State College with headlines talking about coaching changes and player transfers, it's hard to argue that this person wasn't right.

It is hard.

Log on to any social media platform and it's "fire Franklin" or "fire Barbour" or any of a million different enthusiastic battle cries that would undoubtedly set Penn State back farther than the sanctions could at this point.

If the founding fathers wanted voting tests, it was simply because they had seen the future and knew most people who comment online shouldn't be allowed to help pick the leader of the free world. The same could be said for those people making other decisions as it pertains to athletics.

Without a shred of doubt James Franklin has a debacle on his hands and a good portion of this problem is his own doing, but not all of it. The program is headed toward a transition year with or without him, a situation only "improved" by the up and down turbulence of staff changes and player development.

Add in the fact Franklin's general approval rating is only floating above "favorable" because of his outstanding recruiting record and it doesn't look all that pretty in 2016.

However, there is another truth: Fans and alumni hold Penn State football on a pedestal that it no long truly occupies.

There is a scene in the movie World War Z in which zombies climb over increasingly more and more zombies to scale a massive wall. While it would be unfair to compare Penn State fans to the undead, the feeling in recent days has been very similar in its own way. I've seen arguments and debates and illusions of grandeur that are just barely holding Penn State's national relevance within sight. The foundation is hardly there. Everything feels flimsy. You've made your point, but it's not all that stable. It's the belief that if everyone just shouts loud enough, things will be true.

But the fact of the matter is that this isn't your father's Penn State football. It hasn't been for a while.

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This is a Penn State football that hasn't had 85 scholarship players in years. This is a Penn State football that has somehow managed to go above .500 for the past several seasons despite a million reasons it shouldn't have. The alumni base is large and the stadium is big and those things will bring recruits. But put this situation in the hands of a Purdue or a Northwestern and you would never hear of those programs again.

Simply put, Penn State's past relevance is what has saved it from its future irrelevance.

And so the so-called Greatest Show In College Football drags on, carrying behind an era and memories of when things were easier and when the problems were much more fixable. That's Penn State's saving grace, and what will likely drive a fan base into madness.

Now it just takes time, all while wedged into a society where things happen in seconds, years are a sign of failure, and mistakes are a sign of shortcomings. We don't like to wait anymore and with it we compound our issues by simply assuming something else could do it better or someone else could do it faster. We never wait and our rush rarely finds us success.

Franklin has a lot to fix between now and whenever his contract status is truly negotiated again. But the sky probably isn't falling. The ceiling might have some cracks and there are some leaky pipes, but only one team wins a national title each year. Everyone is looking for a plumber.

All of this was perhaps summarized best by Bob Shoop during his introduction at Tennessee.

"It isn't a rebuilding job."

Tennessee is largely a program that is built to win now and with it Shoop saw a chance to propel a bright future forward. His star will never be brighter during his time at Penn State and his desires to be a head coach again have never been a secret. So he does what he has to do.

Herb Hand leaves to reunite with an old friend at Auburn and in turn finds a chance to restart a career bogged down by an inherited offensive line that was only ever going to be so good.

John Donovan was a man never really prepared or in the very least equipped for what he had to do -- and even if it wasn't entirely his fault, he was the easiest to take the fall.

Players transfer. Geno Lewis is like any senior who knows his playing time is limited. Troy Reeder seemingly just misses being home.

If time is, as Mathew McConaughey said in True Detective, a flat circle, then seeing all of the past several weeks unfold for Penn State football should come as no surprise. College football is fluid and things change, but the change is almost always the same kind. This isn't an era when assistants stay put forever, least of all when there is no guarantee that success is just right around the corner.

Penn State football just isn't the job or the destination that it used to be. The best assistants will grow into bigger things at different locations. Players will leave and most will stay. Until the program is in a place where it is once was, there isn't anything to anchor coaches and players to the ship.

Money kept Bob Shoop at Penn State, but his dream made him leave it.

So the question at this point is not if Penn State has a problem. It does. It's a program trying to become relevant in maybe the best division in the nation. The question is why anyone is surprised that isn't changing overnight.

In reality, it could be a lot worse.

Which makes all of the yelling and the calls for people to be fired somewhat comical. Being bad is not an excuse for doing nothing about it, but it's hard to pinpoint exactly what should be better right now that hasn't been. Penn State took a playoff team into the fourth quarter, and was perhaps a few more fortunate bounces from a 10-win season.

A lot of places would be happy to have those problems. But not Penn State, where rebuilding will -- apparently -- never be okay. That's another thing that has always boggled my mind. Penn State is an underdog as it should be right now, and yet the team, the coaches, and the fans never embrace that role. Instead of enjoying wins, fans nitpick issues. Instead of rooting for the small successes on the field, they think about 1994. Watch Maryland try and grow in the Big Ten. First downs are huge, touchdowns are great, big plays are big for everyone. It's not stooping to anyone's level to enjoy the underdog process. It's embracing reality.

None of this really matters if Franklin can't turn the ship around. Be it in two years or four. And knowing that some people will call you an apologist for bad football or a "Franklin mouthpiece" because you float the idea that it might be impossible to build a Big Ten title contender just a few years after the harshest NCAA sanctions in history is its own kind of punishment.

The fact that I have to clarify the basic complexities of building a football program is the kind of thing that makes me agree with that person in the parking lot.

So yea, I guess it is hard to live here.



Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for StateCollege.com. He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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