Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, “It might have been.”
—John Greenleaf Whittier
One of those bearded guys in the book of the 100 best poems we all had as a kid, John Greenleaf Whittier, wrote that. As it turned out, John was a negativist. So is this turkey. But hark! Read on!
Fortunately for you readers, I am here not to assail you as per usual with my negativistic drivel. Quite the contrary. An article I read this morning inspired me to think about “what might have been” if Penn State Football had not possessed the strength and determination to persevere through the past four years. Now, having done so, I’m less jaded and more optimistic. My glass is now half full. Perhaps, if Whittier had been around to witness the epic, stalwart determination of the men of Penn State football and the women who loved them over the past four years, his poetry would have exhibited a less melancholy tone.
Greg Pickel of PennLive.com says “nothing” in a much more elegant way than I said the same thing in my prior post. “Nothing” is what one writes about on a Friday the Thirteenth with no home team football tomorrow. After all, it is a bye week, and we need to write “something”, even if something is nothing, and we need to stay occupied to prevent triskaidekaphobic calamities from befalling us.
Pickel laces his prosaic prose with a singular upbeat sub-theme that I regret having downplayed or missed completely in my “state of the season” post — that regardless of ups and downs, expectations and disappointments, player comings and goings, coaching brilliance and incompetence, Penn State football has survived the (cue ominous cello and annoying bass trombone) dreaded NCAA sanctions, having played through the pain without a single losing season.
This, my dear readers, is not “nothing.” While Pickel’s article in itself meanders to a conclusion that is essentially a question mark, his sub-theme was as an elbow in my ribs, saying “Why can’t you write about this, dumbass turkey?” Even if Pickel didn’t want to play it up as his main theme, I will.
I typically get caught up in negativism, I know. I did back in 2012. No way could PSU beat mighty Wisconsin at the end of the season, I opined! But they did. This year, too, I was negative even before the opening kickoff of the Temple game. No way can they possibly beat Michigan or Moo U., I opine.
Nearly four seasons after the sanctions were imposed, I am still wallowing in self-pity over the state of my alma mater, which is continually reflected in my predictions. Illinois was too close to call. Yeah, right! I continually blame the guys, the coaches, the football gods, and everyone but the hard-working Big Ten officiating crews (because I know that it gets on K. John’s nerves when I exonerate the zebras).
All my rationalizations aside — yes, they are rationalizations and opinions, not informed commentary — the players and coaches deserve much more credit than I have been willing to give them for what we all would have considered nothing short of a miracle back in June 2012, at the depth of our despair. Through thick and thin, they have shown up and taken their lumps for us. It takes a virtual machete to get through my negativity and self-pity, but underneath it all, I’m proud of these guys.
Bill O’Brien came along without knowing that the sanctions would be imposed six months into his regime, yet he fully understood that he would inherit a program in turmoil from St. Joe, whose shoes would be impossible to fill. He had no idea what kind of bullshit he’d be getting from the Penn State administration, the boosters, the media, and the fans; nor did he have a clue that the NCAA Axis of Evil, led by Feldmarschal Markus von Emmert, would not only allow, but also encourage, player defections to competing programs. It was no doubt worse than anything he could have imagined.
O’Brien damned the torpedoes and led his decimated team to an 8-4 record in 2012, including the huge “statement” season-ending win over Wisconsin, even without established stars Silas Redd, Anthony Fera, Khairi Fortt, and Justin Brown who had heeded the call to defect. It took all that for the voices decrying the hire of O’Brien over homeboy Tom Bradley to be silenced. The Nittany Lions needed a breath of fresh air, and O’Brien was a whole gale.
But I digress. The program could have completely fallen apart in 2012 — as Reichsführer von Emmert had intended, but it persevered. Again, in 2013, facing the specter of no post-season play, the Nittany Lions redeemed themselves with a 7-5 season.
After his two seasons at Penn State, Bill O’Brien heeded the NFL call that most of us knew would eventually suck him in, resulting in another national coaching search that culminated with the hiring of James Franklin. Again, the program could have meandered like a rudderless ship, but it didn’t.
The first year of Franklinism, 2014, started off well, with four straight wins. Then came the heart of the Big Ten schedule and with it, four straight losses. That was the end of the honeymoon for Franklin. After expected wins over Indiana and Temple, the Lions finished up the year with losses to Illinois and Moo U., and with the NCAA having restored bowl eligibility, a holiday trip to Yankee Stadium for a Pinstripe Bowl win over BC.
Would anyone have predicted such a successful path back in 2012? (Be honest!) Hell, no! But when we got it, we spent much of the year bitching about it. That’s human nature. That’s sports fandom.
Now, please put this year’s partial results into perspective. Penn State’s three losses have been at the behest of teams that are currently ranked by the College Football Playoff Committee: Temple (#22), Ohio State (#3), and Northwestern (#18). The Nittany Lions still have to play Michigan (#14) and Moo U. (#13). While losses to either or both of those two are expected, I wouldn’t be shocked to see the boys pull out a win. Hell, I think both games are winnable, as I’ve said before, if the stars align to produce an all-out effort such as in the Illinois game. The worst case for this season will be 7-5 and the best case will be 9-3. If you had asked me in 2012 where Penn State would be at this point in 2015 at the depth of the sanctions having been through four head coaches in as many years, I would be thinking along the lines of (cue cello) The Dark Years, spouting predictions like 3-9 or 4-8.
As negative as I can be, I frequently find myself too inextricably mired in the muck of the moment to do what I did this morning —to conduct an objective retrospective overview of the past four years, then cynically look forward from that pellucidly predictive perch of the past to the “now” that might have been. At worst, it could have been “worse than the ‘death penalty'”, as was von Emmert’s plan. At best, it would not have been significantly better than it actually will be. “Where we are” ain’t bad at all! Now that I have engaged in this exercise, I can feel much rosier about the future of Penn State football from here on, at least until I get pissed off again.
Again, that’s human nature. Turkey nature, too.
I have been “pretty sure” all along that whatever bowl game the Nittany Lions wind up playing will be a win, because they’ll play loose and have fun. That still goes.
By the way, that’s my objective for the rest of the season — to have fun, win or lose.
That should be the last of the bye week drooling from this turkey. Well, hell, it has kept me out of trouble on Friday the 13th, although I’m not truly triskaidekaphobic. We’ll be back to the business at hand — the Michigan game — next week, the turkey’s magical birthday week. The game will be played at high noon and broadcast to a national audience on ABC. Michigan opened as a five-point favorite.