By Dave Wischnowsky-
(CBS) From 1887 to 1891, Penn State University played the first 22 football games of its existence, and managed to do so in the most curious fashion possible.
Without a head coach.
Yes, it wasn’t until 1892, after four two-game “seasons,” one eight-game one and a 12-8-2 program record, that PSU – the school that would eventually become synonymous with a football coach – officially named George Hoskins as its first one.
On Sunday, 120 years later, Penn State’s 14th football coach and the eventual synonymous one, Joe Paterno, died of lung cancer at the age of 85, his once glorious legacy shrouded in shame from his role in the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
During the 79 seasons before 1966 when Paterno assumed the reins of the Nittany Lions football program, Penn State won a total of 417 games. During the next 46 seasons, Paterno himself won 409. As a result, more than any other current school in the nation, besides perhaps Duke with Mike Krzyzewski, PSU became defined by a legendary coach.
And on Sunday, following Paterno’s death, the Nittany Lions’ new – and already embattled – head coach Bill O’Brien essentially said as much when he issued a statement that, in part, read: “The Penn State Football program is one of college football’s iconic programs because it was led by an icon in the coaching profession in Joe Paterno.”
I couldn’t agree more with that. And, in this post-JoePa era, I’d say that O’Brien’s statement begs a larger question: Is Penn State truly an elite football program, or was it only one because of Joe Paterno’s presence?
After all, consider exactly what Penn State University is. Or, perhaps, more significantly, where it is. Throughout the entire country, there are few major college campuses anywhere that are more isolated than State College’s, which is nestled in the snowy Allegheny Mountains 136 winding miles northeast of Pittsburgh and 193 twisting miles northwest of Philadelphia.
To reach even Harrisburg from State College you still have to drive 88 miles. Heck, it’s a 44-mile trek just to get dinner in Altoona.
Fact is, to be a coach at Penn State, you have to truly buy in to coaching at Penn State and be willing to live in a town of just 40,000 people located so far off the map that you could lose cell phone service while going there.
Paterno bought in to that small-town notion, of course. Lock, stock and barrel. And because of his commitment to State College and the legend that he built at Penn State, loads of star recruits followed him to the town year after year. But Paterno was an iconoclast in so many ways, and there are few, if any, elite coaches today who are anything like him.
Partly because of that and partly because of the school’s still-bubbling scandal, Penn State ended up settling for O’Brien as Paterno’s successor. An NFL assistant whose most impressive college position was offensive coordinator at Duke, O’Brien’s hire was a disappointment to most everyone who supports the Nittany Lions.
But even if the whole Jerry Sandusky scandal hadn’t happened last year and Paterno had merely retired of his own accord, I have serious doubts that Penn State would have been able to attract the kind of “A-List” coach that its fans would have expected to hire.
Let’s put it this way: Even if Jerry Sandusky had never existed, I think Urban Meyer would have still chosen to live in cosmopolitan Columbus (pop. 787,000) and coach football at Ohio State rather than become “Rural” Meyer and relocate himself to State College.
Unlike an Alabama, which won four national championships before Bear Bryant ever donned his houndstooth hat, Penn State doesn’t have a championship history that pre-dates Paterno. Part of that of course, is because few things on Earth pre-date Paterno.
But, truth is, we really don’t know how attractive a program PSU is without the man that originally made it so attractive. After all, in the 79 years before JoePa, Penn State football won games at only a so-so .652 clip (Notre Dame’s all-time percentage is .741, and Michigan’s .742) and made just six bowl appearances. With Paterno, the Nittany Lions won 75 percent of their games and reached 37 bowls in 46 years, while also capturing two national championships.
As for what happens now – and what kinds of recruits opt to make the trek to State College with JoePa gone – we’ll just have to see. But, when it comes to football dominance, don’t be stunned if Penn State never again becomes PENN STATE.
Not with the made who made that name special in the first place no longer around.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.