Cheap Seats: Still a Happy Valley?
The Pennsylvania State University is actually located in University Park, Pennsylvania. It is also commonly known as Happy Valley. Happy Valley? Obviously that name was not obtained by the recent performance of the university’s once crown jewel; the football team. The teams struggles may have reached a level that neither the fans nor the all time winning college football coach have ever witnessed. Recently, in front of a raucous home crowd in Beaver Stadium, the Nittany Lions lost 6-4 to Iowa. That’s right, 6-4. Bad weather? Nah. Just bad offensive football. This loss came after they dropped a close, hard fought game to then undefeated Purdue and humbled their Heisman candidate quarterback. Many of us fans hoped at the end of the Purdue game that this team, so laden with talent, could use that performance to turn the corner and start restoring pride to the program that for so long was the class of the country.
There was a time not long ago when Penn State was a recognized national football power. Only ten short years ago, the Lions won the Rose Bowl after drubbing Oregon to finish the season undefeated only to be shafted in what should have been at least a shared National Championship. Since 1999, the Lions have had only one winning season (2002). How can this happen? How can a team that was at the top of the college football world for as long as Penn State has been fall so ungracefully as to have the potential to go winless in the Big Ten? There are many theories in Happy Valley as to why and most have blame falling at the feet of Coach Joe Paterno. Some attribute the struggles to the normal ebb and flow of the college football world. Others simple say that the game has passed JoePa by. It is hard not to see Paterno as part of the problem for the simple fact that he IS Penn State football and he wouldn’t want it any other way. I also blame Paterno for the losses to teams like Toledo, Boston College and Pittsburgh but perhaps not for the reasons that so many others do. That is just too easy.
Coach Paterno has lead the Nittany Lions against many opponents during his tenure at Penn State. During that time, he agreed to play teams that other schools would pass on because they weren’t viewed as a marquee match up or the smaller school didn’t want to sign a contract that had them playing the role of a Homecoming date that could be drummed in front of the alumni. Paterno used a different approach that perhaps put into motion the current malaise that the program is mired in. Paterno agreed to play schools like Maryland, West Virginia, Boston College, Virginia Tech and before they found their current success, the MAC. Not only would he play them, but in some cases, he would agree to travel to their school in a seemingly rare home and home series. If that wasn’t enough, Paterno would then play the game close to the cuff so as not to embarrass the other program. Here were the big bad Nittany Lions and all their prestige playing these smaller schools and Paterno was allowing them to stay in the game until late in the game when the Lions would then pull ahead for the easy win. Penn State’s opponents not only benefited financially but because Paterno refused to embarrass the other school, that program could turn around and use it against Penn State on the recruiting trail. Think about how it would look to a recruit if he were to see a prospective school who was a huge underdog to a national power like Penn State play close into the fourth quarter in a televised game. Tempting? Well, in a lot of cases, that same recruit was then offered the next detail; if they were to come to the smaller school they would be on television with a chance to beat a team like Penn State. They would also get to play before their junior or senior year. That is a game that Paterno and the Nittany Lions have been losing for years. The recruits they were losing to these teams that Paterno refused to run up the score on like many of the other nationally recognized teams would; have been used to build respectable programs and instead of their name being penciled in for Homecoming, it is Penn State now finding their name being penciled in as the Homecoming date.
It is hard to deny that the Paterno’s approach has helped college football as a whole as he has indirectly helped to build several programs into Division I powers. As a Penn State fan, I wish that more wins would fall our way, but I also see teams like North Carolina beating Miami and I have to smile to myself because college football is a better product in part because of Paterno’s approach to the smaller, less established schools.
While it is difficult to lay all the blame for the Nittany Lions fall from grace at the feet of Coach Paterno, it is equally as difficult to separate it from the coaching icon. It is a shame that a man who has done so much for not only the Penn State University but also the world of college football would have to face the criticism that he has had to endure in the past few years but if Coach Paterno were playing for Coach Paterno, he would be calling him out during his Tuesday press conferences for his lack of performance. Paterno is a victim of his past successes and the fans were spoiled by it. I will leave the continued criticism of his coaching methods and staff to those who are able to focus on the positive as I am still trying to absorb the whopping 4 points we scored against Iowa. Instead, I will continue to reminisce about the 1982, 1986 and 1994 teams, because it is with those memories that this remains a “Happy Valley” for this Penn State fan.
This article was released on 2004-11-10.
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