This week in college football was exhilarating in every sense of the word, filled with spectacular plays and thrilling matches as well as a titanic shakeup at the top of the standings. An incredible eight games involving ranked teams were decided by three points or fewer. There were statement games and pesky underdogs, frantic comebacks, and several instances in which Arkansas skill players flagrantly violated several laws of physics. In short, it was a beautiful weekend of football, and it could have been remembered as one of the greater fall Saturdays in recent memory. If only.
The truth is, all of this was overshadowed yet again by an off-field scandal, one which cuts to the heart of everyone who loves collegiate sports. On the evening of November 5, Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley was charged with perjury for attempting to cover up alleged child molestation by the football team’s former defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky. Just ninety-seven hours later, the venerable, universally-esteemed, seemingly above reproach Joe Paterno, head coach of the Nittany Lions since 1966, was unceremoniously fired on the spot. The man who was incorruptible, the person who above all else personified integrity and scholarship in college football, was found to be fallible and human. I do not wish to defend Paterno, nor do I feel that his punishment was unjustified. Paterno was always very independent and somewhat hard-headed, but his abject failure to pursue bona fide reports of Sandusky’s wrongdoings within team facilities is simply inexcusable. Paterno chose to ignore the problem and hope it would go away, but the truth always surfaces in time. There had been speculation for years about how this impending end of an era would be realized, but nobody could have predicted this. No one, not even his bitter rivals, would wish an exit in disgrace upon the man who was, for many decades, the classiest figure in all of American sports.
Paterno is a living legend, and his 409 victories – most in the history of Division I football – stand as one of the all-time great records, one which will not likely ever be equaled. Those 409 victories will stand beside Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, Jerry Rice’s 1,549 pass receptions, and Brett Favre’s 322-game starting streak as the ultimate benchmarks of greatness, pinnacles of excellence which will withstand the test of time. Paterno kept his team relevant through the revolutionary changes that have taken place in football’s last five decades, outlasting every great and legendary coach of the time – Bear Bryant, Bo Schembechler, Woody Hayes, Lou Holtz, Larry Coker, Howard Schnellenberger, Bobby Bowden, the list goes on and on. His teams won with stifling defense and with the newfangled shotgun spread, and Penn State’s run of dominance in the 1980s was the match of any modern dynasty save Florida State’s incredible run in the 1990s. Through it all, Penn State football was not once investigated by the NCAA for any infraction, serious or petty. It was the ultimate clean program, maintaining its sparkling reputation and academic integrity long after high-road programs such as Notre Dame had given in to the temptation of winning at all costs. Penn State won with honor and dignity, it played fair and hard, and through all of the turmoil engulfing college football – near-constant conference realignment, tidal waves of scandal and corruption, the evolution of the sport itself – Penn State just kept winning. It was, in Paterno’s own words, a Grand Experiment to prove that college football could indeed be held to the ideals of amateurism and fair play. The era of amateurism is coming to a screeching halt, perhaps for the better, with the NCAA’s recent allowance of $2000 stipends per semester to scholarship athletes. The experiment came to an equally stunning train wreck of a close.
In an age where money mattered most and egos ran rampant, Paterno was the ultimate little guy. He donated back to his university, he emphasized teamwork and sportsmanship, and he was always willing to congratulate an opponent, win or lose. The timeless, spotless uniforms worn by Paterno’s teams, famously the simplest in all of major football, stand in sharp contrast to the flashy, attention-grabbing uniforms of today. In an age when Oregon has almost completely abandoned its original school colors, when classic uniforms at Notre Dame, Michigan, LSU, Florida, Georgia, and many others have been replaced by gimmicky one-time “special” outfits, the Nittany Lions are still just navy and white. Paterno seemed like a Pee-Wee league coach who had built his side on teamwork and humility. In the end, he was the face of Penn State, the eternal beacon of good sportsmanship, the man who was more than a man. Of course, this facade was impossible, a dream rather than a reality, but this was perhaps the most painful way imaginable for the illusion to come crashing down. Paterno, lifelong defender of class and sportsmanship, met his end for failing to defend those who were most vulnerable of all. I pity the man, I pity the victims, and I speak for the entire college football nation when I pity that it had to end this way. Of all the saddening stories of the past year – the destruction of timeless rivalries and leagues for money’s sake, the continued failure of the powers-that-be to permit a fair championship system, the near-constant revelations of corruption and excess, from Columbus to LA to Miami – this one hurts the most. Paterno was everyone’s favorite coach, the man who defined the profession, and his downfall was a dark day for all that is good in college athletics.
Despite the anguish in Happy Valley, the games went on as scheduled. Football is, after all, a business, these days. Paterno’s Nittany Lions were spirited but ultimately lost their home finale and their unblemished Big Ten record against determined Nebraska. Clemson escaped a serious scare against Wake Forest to clinch a spot in the ACC final. Boise State was not so lucky, as the Broncos’ title window came to a close one last time when Dan Goodale’s kick sailed wide right as time expired against TCU. The Broncos will remain strong for the foreseeable future, but the graduation of star QB Kellen Moore after this season means that any hope of a national title seems to have vanished. This year was make-or-break for Boise, and the Broncos broke.
Meanwhile, Oregon ran wild against Stanford to firmly reinsert itself into the national title hunt. Should Oklahoma State fall to their archrival Sooners in two weeks, the Ducks will be squarely in the mix to advance to their second consecutive national title game. Houston also benefited tremendously from the Broncos’ loss, as the Cougars have a golden opportunity to break into a BCS bowl game behind record-setting QB Case Keenum, who figures to be a dark-horse Heisman candidate. LSU and Alabama shrugged off understandable slow starts to win with ease, while Arkansas beat Tennessee in spectacular fashion. Joe Adams provided one of the great plays of all time with his weaving, backpedaling punt return in which he escaped the entire Tennessee coverage team, evading no less than seven tackles, before breaking down the sideline for an impossible touchdown. He neatly upstaged teammate Jairus Wright’s 40-yard circus catch a few minutes later, in which Wright bobbled the ball four times and deflected it off of his own facemask before snagging the catch two inches off the turf. The highlight reel for that game is must-see TV.
The national title picture is currently clear with the losses by Stanford and Boise, as only three unbeaten teams remain, LSU and Oklahoma State control their own destinies absolutely, and Houston is not drawing a whiff of consideration. Should either of the top two lose, however, chaos will be immediate and overwhelming, as Oklahoma, Alabama, and Oregon stand next in line with almost indistinguishable resumes and strong arguments all around. As the season winds down, the excitement will build ever higher, and in the end the Paterno situation will fade away as a bad memory. Perhaps it should not be forgotten, but that is simply the way of things. After all, as the past few months have proven beyond any reasonable doubt, business is business.
Week 12 Picks
Nebraska by 10 at Michigan
Oklahoma by 17 at Baylor
Kansas State by 6 at Texas
Stanford by 14 vs. Cal
UCLA by 10 vs. Colorado