Football a welcome salvation at Penn St. after offseason of trouble (cont.)
But those in attendance at Beaver Stadium last Saturday had every reason to think that this year's Penn State team could be good.
The highly experienced group returns 15 starters -- including potential All-America DE Maurice Evans and all-conference offensive linemen Rich Ohrnberger and A.Q. Shipley -- and several other regular contributors.
The Nittany Lions were already expected to be pretty good defensively, but the Blue-White Game showcased something that's been sorely lacking the past couple of years: playmakers. Foremost among them is Clark, who showed glimpses of his ability in last year's Alamo Bowl win over Texas A&M and whose run-pass capabilities are comparable to 2005 star Michael Robinson. Green, meanwhile, possesses the kind of explosiveness not seen from a Penn State running back since Larry Johnson, though he'll have to bide his time behind veteran Evan Royster.
Obviously, if the Nittany Lions make a BCS-type run, Spanier will have no choice but to do whatever Paterno pleases. Contract or no contract, successor or no successor -- forget it. We all know winning trumps everything.
There remain two potential complications, however.
For one, Penn State suffered a crippling injury during the spring when star linebacker Sean Lee went down with a season-ending knee injury in practice. Lee was arguably the one player defensive coordinator Tom Bradley could not afford to lose, both because of his astounding versatility and his unquestioned role as the defense's leader. He was to be this team's Paul Posluszny or Dan Connor.
More troubling is the issue that everyone connected with Penn State football realizes but no one wants to speak of out loud: That the same man who once stood for everything right about athletics -- the "conscience of college football," as a fellow writer aptly described him -- now seems to field a team full of derelicts.
It's unclear what Paterno's conscience is telling him these days because he's not much for discussing anything that takes place outside the stripes. He defers all legal matters involving his players to the school's office of judicial affairs. And he scoffs at any notion that the uncertainty over his job status has any effect on recruiting.
Arguably the episode that most vividly illustrated the current state of Penn State football was the recent recruitment of uber-star Terrelle Pryor.
As you may recall, the Jeanette, Pa., native delayed his eventual decision to sign with Ohio State in part to give the Nittany Lions a fair shake. Paterno made his first recruiting trip in two years in an effort to land the quarterback, and Pryor spoke fondly of his relationship with ace recruiter Bradley. He wound up taking a last-ditch official visit to State College mostly to appease his father, ultimately decreeing the place "too country."
It's hard to say which was more alarming: That the top recruit in the state only saw fit to consider the school out of obligation -- or that the head coach hadn't made a recruiting visit in two years.
Clearly, in this age of hyperactive head coaches like Pete Carroll, Urban Meyer and Nick Saban, a Paterno-led program stands little chance of returning to the national elite. There can be occasional peaks into the promised land, as there was three years ago, and as there could be this season, but until a younger successor like Bradley takes over, the program will always be at a considerable disadvantage.
Presumably, there are many Penn Staters who are absolutely fine with that reality, such is their deference to JoePa. A .500 Big Ten record (the Nittany Lions are 32-32 in conference play this decade) is a small sacrifice to pay in gratitude to the immeasurable impact Paterno has had on their university over the past half-century.
But surely, there's got to be a breaking point somewhere. What dastardly act must a player commit before someone in power says, "Enough is enough." Just how much farther from reality must the head coach operate before senility is no longer a casual excuse?
Judging by the record spring-game turnout last Saturday, Penn State fans are nowhere near the point of dissatisfaction, which may leave Spanier with a no-win scenario come January.
Especially if Daryll Clark and Co. win big this fall.