Spend some time talking to Joe Paterno and his players about Penn State's 2004 season -- when the Nittany Lions went 4-7 and were held to 10 or fewer points in more than half their games -- and you start to think they're talking about a different school.
"We had a good football team," Paterno said recently without a hint of sarcasm. "I really bet that outside of a couple of plays, we would have had a decent season record-wise."
"We were a play or two away [from having a great season]," said quarterback Michael Robinson.
"We were always right there," said linebacker Paul Posluszny. "It's just that no one ever made that play to get us over the top."
Sensing a pattern?
The outsider looks at Penn State and sees a fallen program that has won just three of its past 16 Big Ten games, didn't have a single player drafted last spring and has fielded one of the nation's most pathetic offenses the past two seasons (103rd out of 117 teams nationally two years ago, 104th last season).
Inside the huddle, however, there is a far more optimistic outlook heading into the 2005 season, and it starts at the top with the iconic 78-year-old at the helm of the Nittany Lions. Rather than focusing on the negatives, Paterno sees a special team that returns nine starters from a defense that ranked fifth in the country last year in points allowed (15.3 per game). Penn State adds two of its most vaunted recruits in recent history, receiver Derrick Williams (Scout.com's No. 3 receiver last year) and cornerback Justin King (the No. 2 cornerback). Both speedsters participated in spring practices and demonstrated the playmaking ability Paterno's teams so sorely lacked the past couple of seasons. "We're not that far off," said Paterno. "We may have have lacked a couple skill people [last year], but I never felt like, 'Holy smoke, we're devastated.'"
Outside of Happy Valley, the once powerful Penn State has become an afterthought in the national landscape. The program, which hasn't won a Big Ten title since its second year in the league, 1994, is no longer mentioned in the same breath as conference lynchpins Ohio State and Michigan -- or Iowa and Purdue, for that matter.
Inside Happy Valley, however, the expectation is that the Nittany Lions won't just return to the right side of .500 this season but they will take the nation by storm.
"We need to go to a big-time bowl game this year," said Posluszny. "We feel we have a couple guys now [Williams and King] that can help get us there."
On Sept. 3, Paterno begins his 40th season as head coach at Penn State. Take a moment to let that number sink in. Forty years.
To put it in perspective, cross-state rival Pittsburgh has had 10 different head coaches during the same span. Many wonder -- understandably so -- whether it will be his last.
Paterno's first 34 seasons were a portrait of dominance -- 31 bowl trips, 18 years of 10 or more wins, five undefeated records and two national championships. But the past five have been an entirely different picture -- four losing seasons, a 26-33 overall record and a 3-13 mark in Big Ten games since 2003. It's not a stretch to say that no other coach of a major program would have survived such a downfall with his job intact, but Paterno -- who not only built Penn State into a football powerhouse but, along with his wife, Sue, has donated more than $4 million to the university -- has earned the right to exit on his own terms.
With each losing season, however, more Nittany Lions faithful have turned against their leader to the point where most observers believe Penn State fans are now split almost evenly between those who are undying Paterno loyalists and those who feel he is hurting his beloved program by sticking around.
Paterno himself continually insists he isn't thinking about retirement. He couldn't care less about the growing legion of skeptics. Despite his team's recent track record, JoePa remains absolutely convinced the program is about to turn the corner -- not just back to respectability, but back to dominance. Having achieved at least one perfect season in each of the past four decades, he speaks openly of his desire to do it once more. Maybe he's being stubborn, maybe he's being senile or maybe, considering he's the second-winningest Division I-A coach of all time, he just knows a whole lot more than the rest of us.