As Penn State wrapped up its spring football practice last week in Happy Valley, coach Joe Paterno seemed very happy indeed. All smiles, he talked about how excited he was that the Nittany Lions, independents since 1887, will play in the Big Ten this fall. His goal, he said, clearly relishing the thought, is to take Penn State to the Rose Bowl, "because that's something I've never done before." It all sounded terribly rosy, but it rang hollow. Although Paterno won't say as much, never before in his 27 years as coach in State College has he faced the challenges that now confront him.
In June 1990 the Nittany Lions rocked the college football world by accepting the Big Ten's invitation to become the league's 11th member, and in the process they touched off one of the biggest upheavals in the history of college athletics. Penn State's move opened the way for Miami, college football's dominant power throughout the 1980s, to join Boston College, Pitt, Rutgers, Syracuse, Temple, Virginia Tech and West Virginia eight months later in a new Big East football conference. It now seems as if the Big East, which would have been a natural alliance for the Nittany Lions, is the conference on the rise, not the Big Ten. And that spells trouble for Penn State football.
True, taken as a whole, the Lions' 28-team athletic program will benefit from its new association, especially financially. Yet, as Paterno admits, "there are still a lot of our people who aren't convinced that the move was good for football."
The chief concern is that recruiting will suffer. Big East football is showing signs of taking off the way Big East basketball did in the early 1980s, and high school blue-chippers are starting to notice. Miami is a perennial national-championship contender. Syracuse has been in the Top 20 four of the last six years. Boston College and Rutgers are on the rise. West Virginia played for the national championship as recently as the 1989 Fiesta Bowl. Pitt won the '76 national title under Johnny Majors, and now, after 16 years at Tennessee, he's back coaching the Panthers. As the 66-year-old Paterno moves closer to retirement age, it's highly possible that kids from the fertile recruiting fields of Pennsylvania and New Jersey might look more kindly on the Big East than on the Big Ten. Penn State safety Lee Rubin, a senior-to-be from Manalapan, N.J., thinks the Lions are fooling themselves if they think that fans in the East are suddenly going to embrace the Big Ten.
"Just getting a feel from the people back home, I think Penn State will have to work harder to get those kids from the East," Rubin says. "I'm a Jersey boy, and the reason I came to Penn State was that it was an independent. When you're from the East, you never think about playing Wisconsin or Iowa or Northwestern. I think the Big East could cash in."
If it does, the primary beneficiary could be the Nittany Lions' archrival, Pittsburgh. Every Penn State fan's worst nightmare is that Majors will get it going again at Pitt. Majors is cautiously optimistic about how the Lions' move to the Big Ten will affect Pitt's recruiting. " Penn State will still be a big factor in recruiting," says Majors, "but maybe we can improve our recruiting in our own backyard."
Of course, Penn State will also get plenty of recruiting competition from other members of the Big Ten. During the most recent recruiting wars, the Lions lost players to both Michigan and Wisconsin.
Recruiting aside, there is reason to wonder how successful the Lions would have been this season no matter what conference they played in. Last year Paterno showed signs that he was losing his grip on the team. The Nittany Lions got off to a 5-0 start before losing a winnable game to Miami in State College. That began a nosedive during which the Lions dropped five of their last seven games, hitting bottom with a desultory 24-3 loss to Stanford in the Less-Than-Blockbuster Bowl on New Year's Day. Says Paterno, "I just couldn't keep 'cm motivated."
Says senior-to-be linebacker Eric Ravotti, "Players started looking out for their stats instead of the team. I'm sure some won't admit it, but it happened."
To get back in touch with his team, Paterno established a players' council this spring; he had breakfast with the group once a week so that views could be exchanged and gripes aired. "They told me I make decisions and don't stick to them," says Paterno. "We get a game plan and don't use it. I do something one way for this guy and another way for someone else. I think we straightened out a lot of our problems."