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Penn State Football: Minnesota’s Kick That Lasted 5 Years

by on October 13, 2009 9:07 PM

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UNIVERSITY PARK — Three weeks shy of a decade, that’s how long. How long since the downward spiral of Penn State football began. On a bright sunny day on the sixth of November, Homecoming Day 1999, Minnesota place-kicker Dan Nystrom lined up to kick a 32-yard field goal at Beaver Stadium.

Seconds before, a 28-yard Hail Mary pass bailed out his team from a fourth-and-16. Four plays later, it was up to Nystrom’s foot in what was to be the final play of the game. And, for Penn State, the final play of an era.

Nystrom looked down, swung his right foot and made the ball sail to the north end zone goal posts.

Past the outstretched left arms of Penn State’s No. 11, LaVar Arrington, as he extended his body over and beyond the Gopher offensive line. Over the extended left hand of No. 4, hero Derek Fox, as he dove up the middle. And clearing the right hand of a surging Courtney Brown, jumping even higher Mr. LaVar Leap.

For a photo of the kick: http://gopherfootball.tripod.com/1990s.html

On YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QjemC5yKwEc

Arrington and Brown would be first-round draft picks the next spring, but on that day, Browning was right, as even Joe Paterno would ruefully admit: “Ah, a man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?”

No. 1, that heaven Penn State had last seen five years and a day prior to Nystrom’s kick, would have to wait. The Lions could not stop the kick. The game ended as the ball went through the uprights for a 24-23 stunning upset victory by Minnesota.

A No. 2 ranking. Gone. The Lions’ 9-0 record. Gone. Three games until they played for the national title. Gone. An 11-game winning streak. Gone. Penn State football as we knew it. Gone for a long, long time.

That field goal plummeted the Nittany Lions into a free fall, as Penn State fell to No. 6 in the rankings and lost 31-27 to Michigan the next week at home. Then they lost again, this time at No. 13, the next week 35-28 at Michigan State. The Lions finally remembered they were a veteran group and rebounded and defeated Texas A&M in the Alamo Bowl. Too little, too late. The fall from grace had already begun.

The Nittany Lions began the 2000 season with an embarrassing 29-5 loss to Southern Cal in the Meadowlands. They started that game ranked No. 22. Penn State spent 49 of the next 63 games not in the Top 25.

It was a precipitous drop that lasted 1,829 days, 61 games, 36 losses and one infamous visit to Joe Paterno’s doorstep.

“Eh, why bring up the past?” is what Joe Paterno would no doubt say if asked about that 1999 Minnesota game. “It won’t matter on Saturday.”

And in an immediate way, it won’t. But with the appearance of Minnesota in Beaver Stadium for the first time since 2005 (a 44-14 PSU win), the Lion King’s circle of life is now complete, from the depths and despair that began with Minnesota’s kick in the groin and didn’t end until a goal line stand on Nov. 13, 2004, in Bloomington, Ind., gave Penn State a 22-18 victory. That’s what it had come to, a desperate finish by a dying team against an opponent better know for chair tossing and campus bicycle races.

That loss to Minnesota a decade ago was a landmark game for Paterno in ways that are still relevant today. It was his 400th game as a head coach. A win this Saturday would give him 389 wins. And it was his first of four consecutive losses to Gopher coach Glen Mason, a friend so close to Joe that he once stayed in the Paterno home after his team played in Beaver Stadium (and flew home without him).

Joe was all of 72 years old back in 1999. Now, after 10 years punctuated with losses and hospital stays, he is still -- or, is once again -- on the sidelines, still coaching.

Mason will be in the Bryce Jordan Center on Saturday, close to but not on the Beaver Stadium field where he last appeared as a coach in 2005. As the Gophers’ coach from 1997-2006, Mason had a 64-57 overall record, a 32-48 mark in the Big Ten and a $1.65 million annual paycheck. He’ll be in town to do the Big Ten Network’s “Big Ten Football Saturday: Pre-Game Show.” Mason is a broadcaster who still yearns to coach. At 59, he can’t be too old. Can he?

That Homecoming Day back in 1999 was also monumental in that it was the last one spent as a coach for Jerry Sandusky. After the season and after 32 years as an assistant coach, linebacking savant and grinning good guy, Sandusky retired. His partner in crime, Joe Sarra, moved to an administrative position. Frank Rocco, after 18 years in support of Paterno in myriad roles, left town for a new job.

That started a major shift on the Penn State coaching. There were five coaching staff changes in three years, seven in five years. The sweep ended with Fran Ganter moving from assistant head coach and offensive coordinator to associate athletic director football. Galen Hall came in to run the offense and Mike McQueary was promoted to receivers coach and recruiting coordinator. That was 2004.

There has been only one change since then, when safeties coach Brian Norwood left of his volition after 2007 for a defensive coordinator’s position. Kermit Buggs, who was already on the football staff, was moved into his spot. One change. In six years.

Look at this way – there are nine fulltime assistant positions. Over six years, there are 54 slots. There’s a different name in only two of those slots – Buggs in 2008 and 2009.

“As long as I can keep our staff together, we’ll be all right,” Paterno has said year after year. He means and he does it.

It is no coincidence that many of the Lions’ failures began to end when the staff stabilized, and improved. Or when the quality of the incoming players began to improve. Or when Paterno seemingly learned to cede control of more aspects of his program, a concession no doubt to age and the knowledge of his staff.

All that has changed since 1999.

Paterno now has three former head coaches on the staff -- Hall, Dick Anderson and Ron Vanderlinden – and a defensive coordinator in Tommy Bradley who has been on the Penn State staff seemingly since he quit his paper rout over three decades. Jay Paterno, “the young guy,” is in his 15th year on the staff

Paterno the elder dodged a big bullet this past offseason, when Larry Johnson Sr. decided to stay after being heavily recruited by Illinois. (Who knows, they may come courting soon again -- to be their head coach.) Johnson coaches the defensive line, and for years has reloaded the talent, turning second-teamers into first-rounders and making the D-line a haven for hard workers who want to play early and often. This year’s poster boys are Jared Odrick and Jack Crawford.

“Larry does a great job,” Paterno said on Tuesday. “I don’t think there’s any question, there isn’t anybody that does a better in the country than Larry does, and would do whaever we asked him to do.”

In addition to the coaching changes and stabilization, the decade has definitely been a mixed bag for Paterno -- losing streaks, broken bones, new hip, relegated to the press box.

Making matters worse is a Big Ten Conference that has been amazingly balanced -- for better or for worse -- since the Minnesota Miracle of 1999. From 2000-2008, a total of eight different teams finished first or second in the Big Ten standings. It’s easier to tell you who hasn’t been in that group – Indiana (a gimme), Minnesota (see: firing, Glen Mason) and Michigan State (high water mark of third in 2008)

“From my vantage point,” Paterno said Tuesday, “I think the league’s tougher now than” when Penn State joined the conference in 1993.

Maybe, maybe not. We do know that in the 1990s, Paterno had a field day. The Nittany Lions were 70-16 (81 percent), with a Big Ten title and four thirds. Since 2000, they have been 71-45 (61 percent), with two titles but nothing else higher than fourth. If championships are the coin of the realm, the Lions of this decade are rich.

But it’s been a long climb back. And just like the financial crisis that has reshaped our economy, devalued our houses and mocked our IRA’s, things are no longer the same. The days of easy money are a thing of the past (unless, of course, we are talking about the non-conference schedule).



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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