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It may be hard to believe, but longtime Penn State head coach Joe Paterno passed away on this day a full decade ago. To think about how much has happened in that time can be overwhelming, to say the least, because a lot has most definitely happened.
Paterno passed away at the age of 85 of lung cancer, on Jan. 22, 2012. His death came just months after he had been removed as head coach of the Penn State football program amid tense circumstances surrounding the program as a result of the Jerry Sandusky scandal that rocked the entire community and college football world. The legacy of Paterno has been debated to various degrees over the years as a result of this, and it is not something we are about to dive into here.
Instead, now may be a good time to reflect on the current state of the program and the university a decade after the man who essentially shaped the image of both has passed.
Penn State obviously took a massive PR hit as a result of the Sandusky scandal, but the university also appears to be doing just fine these days. Onward State took a look at Penn State’s most recent financial statements, and it reported Penn State’s financial growth over the past 14 years has grown 181% from 2007. Even in the onslaught of the scandal and riding through a pandemic, nobody should be losing sleep over the stability of the university in my not-at-all professional opinion.
As for the football program, it has definitely weathered the storm that was the scandal’s impact. The NCAA dropped a sledgehammer of sanctions on the football program and university, putting Paterno’s successor Bill O’Brien in an even more troubling spot as head coach of the Nittany Lions. A four-year bowl ban and a significant cut in available scholarships hampered the Penn State football program, leaving many national experts to suggest the program was destined for irrecoverable failure.
In two seasons under O’Brien with no bowl hopes and a number of transfers and a lack of depth, Penn State went 8-4 and 7-5. The following season, James Franklin was hired to succeed O’Brien, who left to coach the Houston Texans. The NCAA sanctions against the program were lifted in the midst of Franklin’s first season, allowing Franklin to get on the fast track to rebuilding the program as best he can. In three years, Penn State football was celebrating a Big Ten championship in Indianapolis and playing in the first of three New Years Six bowl games in a four-year span. Penn State hadn’t experienced a run like that since its first national championship era in the early 1980s. Things seemed pretty darn good.
The past two seasons have certainly left something to be desired when it comes to expectations and success on the field, something Franklin is surely well aware of. A worldwide pandemic led to Penn State getting off on a historically bad foot in 2020 and the 2021 season failed to keep up the momentum after an encouraging start. In the past two seasons, Penn State compiled a .500 record, opening the door to increased criticism of Franklin’s ability to win (perhaps even more vocally than when Paterno went 7-16 in 2003 and 2004, thanks to the increased volume of social media). But overall, Penn State has proven it has more than recovered from the sanction phase and continues to be in a position to thrive.
The culture of Penn State is still built on many of the same principles put in place by Paterno, although the bells and whistles surrounding the gameday atmosphere have certainly been done up a little more in recent years. Paterno leading the team out of the tunnel in Beaver Stadium with a flashy dance party atmosphere certainly doesn’t feel like it would have ever happened, but the basic routine is still the same to this day. It just looks a little more dazzling.
Looking back on the past decade, there are still plenty of 409 stickers and magnets on cars and RVs making their way around the state on their way to Beaver Stadium on Saturdays, and the divide even within the fanbase on how to properly put into perspective the legacy of Paterno is still a hot topic at times. But a snapshot of Penn State football overall today bears many more similarities to the best days of the Paterno run. And perhaps that is something most can agree on, for better or worse.
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