It was a nightmare that seemed like it would never end.
Ever since the June 22 announcement that Jerry Sandusky was found guilty on 45 counts of sexual abuse, there has been a common yearning among the Penn State community to move on.
But, from charges to sanctions — on July 23 the NCAA hammered Penn State’s football team with a damaging series of penalties including a four-year bowl ban — Nittany Lion football fans quickly saw things go from bad to worse.
Yet, finally, a light reveals itself at the end of the lengthy tunnel representing the past 10 months in Happy Valley.
A brand new chapter in the Penn State football history book will be written when the Lions take on Ohio tomorrow afternoon.
Coach Bill O’Brien’s assertive nature will replace the late coach Joe Paterno’s familiar face on the sidelines.
Several former backup players will be filling the shoes of 2011 starters who transferred after the sanctions were announced.
Further, personalized jerseys will take the place of the unaltered, nameless uniforms of years past.
With so many notable changes this season, players, students, alumni and community members say they also expect a strong feeling of excitement and togetherness to fill the air.
Regardless of their thoughts about the case, charges, or sanctions, many Penn State faithful agree on one thing — the inception of a new era of Penn State football couldn’t be coming at a better time.
Team closer than ever
Transferring would have been easy.
Watching the likes of big contributors Silas Redd and Justin Brown jump ship for other programs after the sanctions were announced this offseason, many other key producers could have followed suit without missing a single snap this year.
Yet, only three starters ultimately transferred from the team.
Although he wishes his former teammates luck on their new teams, redshirt junior safety Malcolm Willis said the decision of his current teammates to stick to their commitment has brought the team closer than ever.
“It’s a test to our character,” Willis said. “We all stayed together because we made a vow to each other. We decided that through thick and thin we’re gonna be together and we’re gonna fight together.”
Players said they are excited to execute O’Brien’s fast-paced offense, one which will likely feature more passing from Matt McGloin, the team’s fifth-year starting quarterback.
McGloin, who is heading into the season as the sole starter for the first time, said he’s most looking forward to having the ability to make split-decisions on his own.
“The most exciting part of this offense is the quarterback has a lot of control out there,” McGloin said. “He has to get it from a bad play to a good play….coach O’Brien puts a lot of faith and trust in the quarterbacks to make the right plays.”
Defensive coordinator Ted Roof has changed the defensive scheme as well, implementing a no-huddle defense the Lions will be running on Saturday.
Senior linebacker Mike Mauti said the new defense gives players more freedom as well because, instead of having one individual play caller, it allows all 11 defenders to receive the signal straight from the sideline.
O’Brien and his staff also made a major alteration to the team’s uniforms. Helmets will bear a blue ribbon and names will appear on the back of jerseys.
The coach said the changes are aimed at helping fans get to know Penn State’s players on a more personal level this season.
“So when we decided to put the names on the back of the jerseys, I felt it was important for the people out there to really know who these kids were that stuck with this program, that stuck with this University, that are going to help — not lead, just help this community moving forward,” O’Brien said.
The blue ribbons reflect O’Brien’s “One Team” mantra, which represents the entire Penn State community coming together.
McGloin said the events of the past few months have certainly been on players’ minds, but they are looking forward to Saturday as a chance to finally play football and have fun doing it.
With so much motivation, senior linebacker Gerald Hodges said players in the locker room know they have a lot to play for.
“As much as they hold it in, I can tell they can’t wait to get on the field and let it out,” Hodges said. “All that anger we got built up, all that tension we got built up…the guys can’t wait to let it go on Saturday.”
Students stand by team
Thousands of angry students swarmed downtown State College to display their displeasure with the firing of Paterno last November.
Trucks were overturned, rocks were thrown and reputations were tainted.
Since that fateful evening, the student body has organized many events to honor the those affected by sexual abuse, and has developed into a calmer, more understanding group, anxious for the upcoming football season.
Panhellenic Council President Julianne Robbins said students are excited to take advantage of a new school year that represents a clean slate for them, as well.
“I think it’s just a refreshing outlook that it’s the beginning of a new school year and we have so much time to make an impact on our school, to leave a legacy and show everyone how we really are such a great institution and the inactions of a few men aren’t what our school is all about,” Robbins (senior-biology) said.
Although students said they are disappointed with the sanctions levied upon the team, Council of Commonwealth Student Governments President Ben Clark said this only adds to their willingness to express support.
“Just like everyone else, we’re taking it on the chin and we’re moving forward as best we can,” Clark (senior-accounting) said. “I think that this upcoming football season, you’re gonna see an energy from the students that’s something we’ve never felt before in Beaver Stadium.”
The outpouring of support from the student body has not gone unnoticed by the team.
McGloin said something as small as receiving good luck wishes on the way to class helps the excitement level of the team rise even higher.
“It’s great. You know that they have your back when you step onto that field Saturday,” McGloin said. “And that’s one of the reasons you play the game, you play it for your student body.”
The student body welcomes more than 7,000 freshmen this year and, similar to many athletes, they have received much praise for their commitment to become members of the Penn State community.
Jeff Tinkoff said despite receiving countless jokes from students at his high school about his choice to come to Happy Valley, his decision never wavered.
“I’d rather be here, because my class represents a whole new era, behind a whole new coach for the first time and I’m a big supporter of him,” Tinkoff (freshman-division of undergraduate studies) said.
Alumni excited for new era
As former Penn State players, lettermen can certainly relate to the bond shared by the current team.
However, Pat Mauti, Class of 2009, said the current roster, which includes his younger brother, Mike, is experiencing a bond no other Penn State team has ever felt.
“That bond that they’re gonna have for the rest of their life is gonna be very special because what they’ve gone through in the last 11 months, 99 percent of this world will not be through in their entire lifetime,” Mauti said.
With only nine players transferring, the former wide receiver said it demonstrated how tight the team’s chemistry truly is.
“I mean that tells the NCAA something, that you can’t tear us apart,” Mauti said. “We’re a lot stronger than this. You can pull all your rabbits out of a hat, but we’re not going anywhere.”
Besides unity, Mauti said the other main difference on this year’s team is the energy derived from the “completely different regime” of the new coaching staff.
Ron Coder, Class of 1976, said after nearly half a century with Paterno as head coach, many of the alumni were tentative about O’Brien replacing him this season.
“But then getting to meet him and having seen his heart,” Coder said, “I think the guys that I’ve talked to have been very positive.”
Former Penn State tight end, Mickey Shuler Sr., Class of 1978, said he approves of the change in the team’s coaching strategy on both sides of the ball.
“I think as soon as that offense embraces the ability to challenge the defense, I think that the defense and offense of Penn State also will become better than they have been in the past,” he said.
Although Shuler said alumni are encouraged by the new coaching staff, many still are displeased with the university’s handling of the sanctions.
Shuler said he is upset with the Board of Trustees because it is allowing the NCAA to treat the football program like every member of it is guilty.
“I know enough to not like the direction that they’ve taken and the posture that they’ve taken,” Shuler said. “Because they’ve taken the posture like we’re [all] guilty of something. We’re not.”
Naturally, lettermen are even more dismayed by the sanctions, themselves.
Mauti, who was on a handful of the 14 Penn State teams that had wins vacated, said he’ll never consider his career to be winless.
“I have friendships for life that tell me different,” Mauti said. “I have blood, sweat and tears that tell me different. And I was fortunate enough to be apart of two Big Ten Championship teams, go to five bowl games, win four of them….You can’t take away what we went through.”
Looking forward, Mauti said the alumni agreed this Penn State team will be remembered simply for playing a part in the recovery process.
“I think this team is gonna go down [in history], no matter however many games they win, however [many] games they lose,” Mauti said. “I think that’s a minute detail in the big scheme of things. The guys on the team and coaching staff on this team, they’re all gonna be remembered for Penn State football 2012.”
Community sticks together
Oftentimes players have said they not only want to positively represent the school, but also its entire surrounding community.
According to several prominent members of the State College area, their efforts have paid off and the community has remained unified.
“It’s refreshing that we’re starting a new season,” Don Hahn, State College Borough Council President, said. “I think the community supports its football team. We’re anxious to see how the new coach and new program are doing and I think it’s a very exciting time.”
Council member Cathy Dauler added that having the focus on a new season has pleased local businesses as well.
Although the community still has a long way to go to recover its image, Coder said Saturday’s game will certainly be a step in the right direction.
“I think it’s gonna be something that’s gonna galvanize the Penn State family,” Coder said.
According to Mauti, Saturday’s game against Ohio is the start of the most important season in the school’s storied history because everybody will be watching to see how the entire Penn State community responds to the tragic offseason it had.
But as Hodges explained, this is the reason so many 2012 Nittany Lions decided to stay — to help the community recover.
“We weren’t the only ones suffering from it,” Hodges said. “Like I said, the community, the victims [were suffering too]. I think it was our best interest to stay. Not just [for] us… We’re playing for pride. We’re playing for respect. [To show] that no matter what you do to us, no matter how far you knock us down, we’re gonna keep getting back up.”