Words by Alec Bojalad
There’s a theory on time travel that holds no one event is big enough to divert the course of history. Time is like a stream of water running downhill and any interference from a time traveler is just a large rock placed in the middle of the stream. It will push water in two directions but the water will just regroup on the other side and continue on its original path.
Sometimes it feels like the events at Penn State in the winter of 2011-2012 were engineered by some cruel time traveler who journeyed back to our time just to test out this theory. The scandal involved the one institution in college football that previously seemed beyond reproach. JoePa’s grandfatherly image and his grand experiment were to a large extent contrived and perpetuated by old media but the perception of Penn State’s general goodness stuck nonetheless. And the crime in question was about as terrifying as anything we could imagine to strike amateur sports. This hypothetical time traveler wanted to see if there would be a rock large enough to effectively change an institution’s future.
For a time it looked like it could. Who could root for this team? How could players perform under this kind of pressure? Would Penn State even have a team in a year’s time? But then something happened – Penn State played a season of college football.
The 2012 Penn State football team played exactly to not only their expectations but their talent level. The 2012 squad was a seven-to nine-win team regardless of whether Joe Paterno, Bill O’Brien or Vince Lombardi with Wolverine-claws was coaching it. And at eight wins, they fell exactly within these expectations.
Any tipsy Penn State juniors killing time on College Avenue could have conceivably predicted 2012’s schedule results down to a “t.” Week 1 is a loss. It’s too much of an emotionally charged environment. Week 8 against OSU? That’s a loss. Week 10 in Nebraska? Maybe in Happy Valley, but definitely not in Lincoln. And then factor in one more random loss on the schedule. Let’s say Week 2 at Virginia for the hell of it.
2012 was about as normal a season as could have been expected, regardless of what happened the offsesaon before. And now heading into the 2013 season, Penn State seems to be on the exact same path. Even with scholarship restrictions and another postseason ban, Penn State secured Rivals’ 43rd ranked recruiting class. In the Big Ten, only Ohio Sate (#2), Michigan (#5), Nebraska (#17) and Michigan State (#40) are ahead of them.
Granted, those recruiting rankings are a bit low for a program as once respected as Penn State’s, but think hard for a moment – if Joe Paterno were still alive and still coaching and if we never learned what we did about Jerry Sandusky, would you be surprised that Penn State was coming off an 8-4 season with the fifth-ranked Big Ten recruiting class coming in? Probably not. If anything, you’d be surprised that they managed to recruit one of only two five-star rated pro-style quarterbacks in Christian Hackenberg (who has a legitimate shot of starting week one over sophomore Tyler Ferguson).
And so the time travel theory holds up. When a stream is running quickly enough, even the most devastating event imaginable won’t divert its path. Coach Bill O’Brien has been given the unlikely but blessed gift of normalcy. Now it’s up to him to do something with it.
* – Anybody who has base-level understanding of how basic human greed and big time college athletics money worked knew that this was never a realistic possibility. But it’s a testament to just how enormous this crime was that anybody ever even entertained the thought.
** – For as much enjoyment as this game brought me as an Ohio grad, I have to admit that it wasn’t a hugely surprising upset.