Penn State

Joe Paterno statue

Penn State penalties should force a look in the mirror

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There will be no shortage of opinions on what NCAA president Mark Emmert did Monday morning. After years of watching collegiate athletics’ governing body be more bureaucratic boondoggle than effective leadership, Emmert and the NCAA acted quickly and decisively when they announced significant penalties against Penn State and its football program for its role in enabling convicted child molester and former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.

Penn State will pay a $60 million fine and the football program will serve a four-year postseason band. They’ll also lose 10 scholarships a year for the next four years, limiting the roster to just 65 scholarships. Perhaps levying its strongest statement against former head coach Joe Paterno, the NCAA forced the school to vacate all victories from 1998 to 2011, stripping Paterno of the career wins crown in major college football.

“Football will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing and protecting young people,” Emmert said.

This is a Notre Dame football blog and a forum I intentionally keep focused on the Irish and their opponents. Yet the Sandusky case, and Penn State’s role in it, so meticulously characterized by the Freeh report, is an opportunity for fans everywhere to take a step back and hopefully gain some perspective as they consider the football programs they support.

Certainly there will be debate about the severity of the NCAA punishment, unprecedented in many ways, and uncontested by Penn State school president Rodney Erickson. The scholarship limitations and the ability for current players to leave now or after the season are crippling to new coach Bill O’Brien, and will likely internally decimate a program that has already seen its national reputation implode.

Yet there will be football played at Penn State this season. And that is troubling.

For many people (me included), playing football was a transformational experience. While my experience on the gridiron ended after high school, the lessons I learned on the field are still ones I draw from today. The men who put their time in teaching me the game are men that I still respect. That Penn State’s key leaders would protect a monster and allow him to be around the program for more than a decade after multiple instances of highly questionable behavior with defenseless children is something that I’ll never be able to get past.

It wasn’t too many months ago that being a Penn State fan was like being a fan of Notre Dame. Both programs have a proud history. Both believe their football program was not just about excellence on the field, but also acts as a symbol of what the university stands for and represents. In Joe Paterno, Penn State had their Rockne, Parseghian, and Holtz all rolled into one. Even after that facade was shattered and Sandusky’s conviction tore away any ability for a rational fan to see differently, it took days of debate and chaos to come to the simple conclusion to remove Paterno’s statue from outside Beaver Stadium.

Throughout these sad months spent consistently reading reports that got nothing but worse and worse, I couldn’t help but wonder how I would feel if this was happening at Notre Dame.

The conclusion was simple: I’d want the program ended.

In this parallel nightmare, the Golden Dome wouldn’t be worth a can of glittery spray paint. And what to do with Touchdown Jesus? That mural would haunt a school where football and faith successfully co-exist.  The idea of Playing Like a Champion would seem awfully silly. And if the Fighting Irish wouldn’t stand up and fight for those that couldn’t protect themselves, that’s a crushing death blow that I wouldn’t want to try and recover from.

These are Notre Dame traditions. And I’m certain Penn State had just as many traditions that millions of fans also held sacred.

Collegiate athletics are a privilege, not a right. A privilege for players, for coaches, for the administrators, and the community. There’s no doubt that the penalty the NCAA levied on Penn State was a harsh one. But they gave the school the gift of allowing 107,000 people to assemble and cheer on a football program that might not deserve the right to exist anymore.

In the days and years to come, Penn State fans might look at Emmert as a villain that tried to destroy a program. Nonsense. The program was destroyed by the men most responsible for protecting it. Emmert merely did the best that he could to hit the reset button, all while understanding that the beast that is college football has been out of the cage for far too long.

“One of the grave dangers that stem from our love of sports is that the sports themselves can become too big to fall, indeed too big to even challenge,” Emmert said. “The result can be an erosion of academic values that are replaced by the value of hero worship and winning at all costs.”

For the people of Penn State, coming to grips with the fact that their program, their source of pride, and their communal identity was rotten to the core. Complaining about their future two-deep depth chart or hopes for a Big Ten title only prove that they’re missing the point completely.

Yet in today’s world of major college football, people should be weary before picking up a pitchfork. Be thankful a monster like Jerry Sandusky hasn’t infiltrated their community or athletic department. But also, be honest with yourself.

Hero worship and winning at all costs doesn’t just exist in Happy Valley.

Midwest recruiting scene just got a little more crowded

brady-hoke
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Way back in June, we took a look at the lay of the land in the Midwest, and noticed how the recruiting world might be shifting a bit. Back then, big news was that Russell Wilson — given his walking papers by North Carolina State coach Tom O’Brien — was signing on the dotted line with Wisconsin. (A story that I was credited for breaking, even though that wasn’t 100 percent my intent to be completely honest.)

Well, with Urban Meyer taking the head coaching job at Ohio State, and all the changes at Penn State, it’s time to take another look back at what’s gone on in less than five months. Let’s just say it’s been substantial.

Let’s check in across the Midwestern powers and see what’s happened since June.

OHIO STATE

Here’s what I said then:

Where the Buckeyes go is anyone’s guess, but it’ll be with an interim head coach, an athletic director that isn’t likely to survive the rather large magnifying glass that peers over his department, and a flagship program that’s unraveling faster than twine down stairs.

A very realistic outcome is something along the lines of USC — and maybe worse — but drastic scholarship reductions are coming soon, which lessens the chance of a coach like Urban Meyer taking over the program, something that’d put a tourniquet on the blood that’s being shed.

Still, on field results still trump stability and until the Buckeyes prove they’ve lost it, it’s hard to catapult an Irish football program that’s just a year removed from its own coaching transition in front of one of college football’s perennial powers.
Verdict: Irish still in rearview mirror, but the passing lane is only a season or two ahead.

Well, it turns out that $40 million is worth more than worrying about NCAA sanctions, which seem closer to a slap on the wrist than an anvil being dropped on the Buckeyes. After one year with his family and tending to his health, Meyer is back in coaching and taking over Ohio State, at what looks to be another one of his “dream jobs.” (In his defense, I’ve got multiple dream jobs, too. If only the Twins were looking for a over-the-hill shortstop that can’t hit that moonlights as a million-dollar screenwriter and Naval Aviator.)

Meyer’s return to college football will make the state of Ohio much more competitive and he’ll also be recruiting a similar type of offensive athlete as Brian Kelly. He also might be making a sales pitch to one of the Irish’s coaches, with running backs coach Tim Hinton getting a lot of attention in the media as someone that might join the new Buckeyes staff.

Hinton’s brother Steve, a high school coach in the area, talked to the Lancaster Eagle Gazette about the opportunity to head back to Ohio State.

“Whenever Urban has gone to be a head coach, he has offered Tim jobs,” Steve Hinton said. “(Tim) had young kids and didn’t want to move for that reason. I know Tim and Urban talk throughout the year, and that they had a really good working relationship.”

Steve Hinton was unsure whether his younger brother would accept an Ohio State position under Meyer if he was pursued.

“It would be a tough decision to stay or to come home, especially because he loves Notre Dame and the atmosphere that’s there,” Steve Hinton said. “As a brother, I would love for him to come home, but I would understand if he stayed at Notre Dame.”

There has been no noise out of South Bend on Hinton leaving and he’s been visiting recruits this week and also has plans to stay on the trail into next week as well, according to several reports. Still, Hinton’s work with the running backs has been tough to ignore, and if he decides to join Meyer’s staff in what amounts to a horizontal move, it’ll be a tough loss to a unit that is in desperate need of coaching this offseason.

MICHIGAN

Here’s what I said then:

Remember when rival fan’s took to spelling Lloyd Carr’s name with three Ls, almost belittling the coach’s inability to win more than eight or nine games? That level of “mediocrity” wasn’t good enough for Michigan brass so they brought in West Virginia head coach Rich Rodriguez to kick-start a program that was still one of college football’s elite. Three loses became three wins and Rodriguez was never able to put together a defense that could withstand the Big Ten schedule, nor an offense that could make up for it.

After three turbulent seasons, Rodriguez is gone and Jim Harbaugh didn’t come to Ann Arbor. In his place, Brady Hoke, who has successfully played the “wake up the echoes” card that tends to work well amongst proud football programs.

The Wolverines staff has taken dead aim at reclaiming Midwestern recruits and the message has been well received. Still, Hoke’s new offensive system could detract from the one strength Michigan had last year — a potent spread offense that ran Denard Robinson into the ground.
Verdict: For as bad as the Rich Rod era was, he still took 2 of 3 from ND. Dead heat, with this season’s match-up the likely tie-breaker.

That Hoke won ten games, including victories over Notre Dame and more importantly Ohio State has to have Wolverines fans ecstatic. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison transformed one of the worst defenses in school history into a statistically impressive group, and even while it was with a lot of smoke and mirrors, ten wins is ten wins.

Offensively, the transition to a pro set was a work in progress, with Denard Robinson still the team’s leading rusher and ball carrier. And while getting the losing streak off their back was nice, there’s got to be some sense of agony knowing that even in the Buckeyes worse moment, they still nearly had Michigan, with freshman quarterback Braxton Miller missing a wide open receiver streaking to the end zone near the end of the game. Now enter Urban Meyer, the perfect coach for Miller’s skillset.

With a recruiting class 23 deep — including 14 recruits that profile on the defensive side of the ball — Hoke and Mattison know they haven’t fixed anything yet. More impressively, the Michigan staff is doing their best to put a fence around the Midwest, with 17 recruits from Ohio and Michigan.

PENN STATE

Here’s what I said then:

The Nittany Lions might not be that close geographically, but with Penn State in the Big Ten, they’ll always be considered Irish contemporaries. Call it a rite of autumn, but one of these years is going to be Joe Paterno’s last in State College, and when that happens, the fertile recruiting grounds of Pennsylvania and the Northeast should open up.
Verdict: The program may not be what it used to, but JoePa still has his pick of the region.

Obviously, nobody could have seen something like what’s happened coming, and Nittany Lion football will never be the same. Penn State is without a head coach, without any clear idea (or precedent) what the NCAA will do, and the damage Jerry Sandusky (and his enablers) did to the school is immeasurable.

From a pure football point of view, without a head coach, there’s no telling what this will do to the football program and recruiting. Right now names like Charlie Strong, Dan Mullen, Chris Petersen, Mike London, Al Golden, James Franklin and Pat Fitzgerald are being circulated as targets by Penn State websites. Not to say they’re dreaming, but stepping into Happy Valley right now is more than just taking a new job.

The Lions have 15 recruits on board currently, with names like Armani Reeves and Tommy Schutt familiar to Irish fans. Notre Dame wasn’t ready to accept Schutt’s commitment earlier this season when he was ready to give it. They’d likely take Reeves, though he said back in early November that he was 100 percent committed to Penn State.

 

Unstable Midwest should mean good things for the Irish

brady-hoke
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Strange days lie ahead for the Big Ten, or whatever they’re officially calling the conference right now. (B1G?)

As news broke that North Carolina State quarterback Russell Wilson could be taking his talents to Madison, it solidified the fact that there’s near historic instability around the Midwest in college football, a recipe that should help Notre Dame and Brian Kelly thrive in the coming years.

(Last night, I walked my way into a Twitter beehive, when I was credited as breaking the story that Russell Wilson had chosen to transfer to Wisconsin. I didn’t mean to walk out on a ledge and be the news-breaker. More importantly to all those aspiring journalists out there, if what I wrote can be construed as your source material, you’re really not doing your job. Moving on…)

The point of looping Russell Wilson into this story isn’t to atone for my Twitter misstep, but to point out just how upside down the pecking order is for Midwestern football teams. Since when did Wisconsin pick up the No. 1 free agent in college football? More importantly, since Barry Alvarez had Ron Dayne trucking undersized defensive backs, when was the last time Wisconsin walked into the preseason as the resounding favorite to return to Pasadena?

With Ohio State likely facing a program-changing penalty from the NCAA, the perennial top of the mountain will likely be knocked down to lower altitudes for the next five years. (Sure, they might put together a good season next year with an “Us against Them” attitude, but scholarship reductions and coaching changes have a real way of messing things up…) Michigan, the winningest football program in all of college football, is starting over with a head coach with a sub-.500 record and a defense coming off back-to-back historically bad seasons. Welcome to a world where the college football team from East Lansing is co-champs of the Big Ten, and loses their bowl game to a fourth-place SEC team by six touchdowns.

But that’s the landscape Brian Kelly inherits, and it makes sense to look at the traditional power programs in the region that Kelly will battle both on the field and on the recruiting trail.

(With distance from Notre Dame in parenthesis)

Ohio State (250 miles): Where the Buckeyes go is anyone’s guess, but it’ll be with an interim head coach, an athletic director that isn’t likely to survive the rather large magnifying glass that peers over his department, and a flagship program that’s unraveling faster than twine down stairs.

A very realistic outcome is something along the lines of USC — and maybe worse — but drastic scholarship reductions are coming soon, which lessens the chance of a coach like Urban Meyer taking over the program, something that’d put a tourniquet on the blood that’s being shed.

Still, on field results still trump stability and until the Buckeyes prove they’ve lost it, it’s hard to catapult an Irish football program that’s just a year removed from its own coaching transition in front of one of college football’s perennial powers.
Verdict: Irish still in rearview mirror, but the passing lane is only a season or two ahead.

Michigan (160 miles): Remember when rival fan’s took to spelling Lloyd Carr’s name with three Ls, almost belittling the coach’s inability to win more than eight or nine games? That level of “mediocrity” wasn’t good enough for Michigan brass so they brought in West Virginia head coach Rich Rodriguez to kick-start a program that was still one of college football’s elite. Three loses became three wins and Rodriguez was never able to put together a defense that could withstand the Big Ten schedule, nor an offense that could make up for it.

After three turbulent seasons, Rodriguez is gone and Jim Harbaugh didn’t come to Ann Arbor. In his place, Brady Hoke, who has successfully played the “wake up the echoes” card that tends to work well amongst proud football programs.

The Wolverines staff has taken dead aim at reclaiming Midwestern recruits and the message has been well received. Still, Hoke’s new offensive system could detract from the one strength Michigan had last year — a potent spread offense that ran Denard Robinson into the ground.
Verdict: For as bad as the Rich Rod era was, he still took 2 of 3 from ND. Dead heat, with this season’s match-up the likely tie-breaker.

Michigan State (150 miles): Mark Dantonio’s program is poised to assert itself after a breakout season. Will the Spartans do it? That’s been the question over the last few decades. Shy on Q rating, the Spartans still manage to own the Irish, winning six of the last nine meetings with Notre Dame, including three of the last four. Perception wise, this is a battle that Notre Dame could start winning soon. But perceptions end every September, when the Irish and Spartans usually play a close game.
Verdict: ND may win on the recruiting trail, but they need to do it on the field.

Northwestern (108 miles): The Fighting Fitzgeralds have become a legit program under their beloved coach, but they’ve used the cupcake formula to create winning seasons. Boston College has replaced Illinois State in non-conference games, meaning the Purple will have to earn their victories this season. In 2014, the Irish and Wildcats will finally have a chance to size each other up, settling a simmering debate amongst snooty alums everywhere.
Verdict: Push. ND should pull away soon, but right now it’s still neck and neck.

Purdue (Driving distance: 115 miles): Under Danny Hope, the Boilermakers haven’t had much success. Last year’s team finished with six straight losses after injuries and youth plagued the roster. There’s reason for optimism, but the Drew Brees era feels like a long time ago.
Verdict: Irish shouldn’t struggle with Purdue.

Illinois (200 miles): The Fighting Zooks have been a bigger player on the recruiting scene than on the field, with their nine-win 2007 run to Pasadena erased by a stretch of mediocre football. If Illinois is a rival of the Irish, it’s in the battle for Chicagoland recruits, and Ron Zook isn’t likely to survive another bad season in Champaign.
Verdict: Instability at Illinois means open season on Chicago recruits.

Wisconsin (250 miles): If you’re looking for an example of a coach-in-waiting working out well, look no further than Camp Randall, where Barry Alvarez handpicked his successor and Bret Bielema took off running out of the gates. The Badgers have won 12 games, 11 games, 10 games, and 9 games since he took the reins of the Badger program in 2006, doing it with a high-octane running game and a pro-style passing attack under Paul Chryst. If there’s any program poised to take hold of the Big Ten with Michigan and Ohio State rebuilding, it’s the Badgers.
Verdict: No Big Ten program does more with less than Wisconsin.

Iowa (300 miles): Kirk Ferentz has long been considered one of the best coaches in college football, but his team’s have hardly been the most consistent. The Hawkeyes put together an 11-win campaign and an Orange Bowl victory in 2009, but stumbled to five losses last season. Ferentz’s days as a legitimate NFL coaching candidate are likely gone, meaning he’ll keep the Hawkeyes near the top of the Big Ten.
Verdict: Expect the Irish and Iowa to compete for a few recruits every year.

Penn State (500 miles): The Nittany Lions might not be that close geographically, but with Penn State in the Big Ten, they’ll always be considered Irish contemporaries. Call it a rite of autumn, but one of these years is going to be Joe Paterno’s last in State College, and when that happens, the fertile recruiting grounds of Pennsylvania and the Northeast should open up.
Verdict: The program may not be what it used to, but JoePa still has his pick of the region.

 


Irish Memories: Reggie Brooks and the Snow Bowl

Reggie Brooks PSU
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Considering today is St. Patrick’s Day and our friends at Versus are running a triple-header marathon this evening to celebrate, I caught up with former Irish All-American Reggie Brooks, who was fairly instrumental in one of the greatest Notre Dame football games ever, the 1992 last-second victory over Penn State in the game now known as The Snow Bowl.

As one of the ten finalists for the most memorable moments on NBC, the 1992 Snow Bowl easily goes down as one of the iconic memories of modern Irish lore, with Irish Impact posters still adorning dorm and bedroom walls almost 20 years later.

Reggie, now working for Notre Dame athletics as a manager with the Monogram Club and in Football Alumni Relations, was kind enough to talk with me and take a look back at the Irish’s 17-16 win over Joe Paterno’s Nittany Lions, which was capped off by his two-point conversion diving catch — on a play ad libbed by Lou Holtz on the sideline — vaulting the Irish to victory.

Here’s more from Reggie on what he remembers:

“The biggest thing was that final drive. People lock in on that touchdown pass to Jerome and that two-point play to me. But look at the 4th down play, where Derrick Mayes, a freshman, takes the ball away from the defense to keep the drive going…

“We had a bunch of guys committed to winning and that play, by a freshman, was huge. I can’t speak highly enough of Derrick, all the catches he made and the records he set while he was at Notre Dame.

“But there was a calmness of the group on that drive. There was no panic in that drive. This is what we do. We go out and make plays. Some way, some how. It was never about winning the game, it was about winning our last game as seniors, especially considering the last two senior classes didn’t win their last home games…

“Did I think this game would be a classic? I was just glad to get off the field. It was mass hysteria and we pretty much got mobbed after the game by a whole bunch of people, there wasn’t anything called risk management back then. I was just thankful that Irv Smith was able to pull people off of me.”

A few years ago before the Irish were set to play Penn State, Reggie returned to that corner of the endzone with Jack Nolan of UND.com and they did a great feature on the play, the game, and what led up to Reggie’s great catch. It’s well worth the time and watching the video.