PITTSBURGH (AP) — The man who built Penn State into a national power is gone, replaced — for the moment — by chaos.
Joe Paterno’s sudden ouster following the arrest of longtime assistant Jerry Sandusky on charges of child molestation has rocked one of college football’s most enduring programs to the core.
While Paterno’s firing after 46 seasons was stunning to be sure, the things Paterno put in place that made the Nittany Lions a desired destination for some of the nation’s top talent for decades remain.
Beaver Stadium still seats 107,000. The facilities are still pristine. The Big Ten is still formidable and on television every week.
It’s why the expected flood of recruits out the door following Paterno’s departure has been a trickle at best. Only Windsor (Colo.) offensive lineman Joey O’Conner has backed out of his verbal commitment.
The rest remain on board waiting to see who will fill Paterno’s iconic black sneakers.
“It’s not catastrophic,” said Mike Farrell, national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. “Everybody in every industry is saying ‘Oh my gosh, this is the end of Penn State and it’s going to take years and years to recover.’ If they get the right person in there, moving forward they’ll be Penn State again.”
Even if they won’t look quite the same without Paterno, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Though the Nittany Lions have routinely landed Top 25 recruiting classes, Farrell gives the program a “B-minus” over the last decade, due in part to the physical limitations Paterno faced in his advanced age. His limited travel schedule prevented him from hitting the recruiting trail during November and December, allowing key recruits in Penn State’s backyard to slip through the school’s grasp.
The list of Pennsylvania natives who opted to play out of state over the last decade include Terrelle Pryor (Jeannette, Pa.), who went to Ohio State. And then, there were those key recruits from Pennsylvania, who stayed in state, but ignored Penn State, like Darrelle Revis (Aliquippa, Pa.), who chose Pitt.
“They’ve had limitations, one of those being Joe Paterno being unable to do in home visits and really not being an active member of the recruiting staff,” Farrell said. “Plus they had an older group of coaches that weren’t not as energetic on recruiting trail. They’ve been underachieving a bit.”
Farrell understands it’s difficult to talk about the recruiting impact when there’s so much more at stake. Yet the football program will move on, and despite the upheaval high school coaches who have urged their best players to head Happy Valley for years will continue to do so if it remains a good fit.
“I’d send a kid to Penn State, I still have respect for Penn State,” longtime George Washington (Philadelphia, Pa.) coach Ron Cohen said. “Penn State is still a great school. The program is good. But I would think change is inevitable. It’s about money and public image.”
And the school is eager to distance its image from the one of Sandusky being led away in handcuffs, even though the retired defensive coordinator continued to be a vigorous advocate for his alma mater even as a grand jury investigated claims he molested underage boys over a 15-year period.
Sandusky attended a football camp for Polynesian players in Utah over the summer and urged all in attendance to play for Paterno. His message resonated with Adam Ah Ching, a linebacker at Greer (S.C.) High.
“Who wouldn’t want to go to Linebacker U?” said Otto Ah Ching, Adam’s father.
Not Adam, who removed Penn State from his list of possible destinations after charges were levied against Sandusky.
“It was really devastating,” Otto Ah Ching said. “We were all surprised.”
The widespread fallout, however, could help the school move on quickly. Paterno, former university president Graham Spanier and university vice president Gary Schultz are all gone. Athletic director Tim Curley is on leave, as is assistant coach Mike McQueary, who witnessed Sandusky and a young boy in the shower together in 2002 and reported the incident to Paterno but did not go to authorities.
More changes will be on the way. Tom Bradley will coach the team on Saturday against No. 19 Nebraska, but he’s not expected to be a viable candidate to replace his mentor. New school president Rod Erickson stressed Bradley has the title only on an interim basis.
The massive shift away from Paterno is jarring. It was also expected on some level.
Despite his insistence to not put an expiration date on his career, his days atop the program were dwindling to a precious few. Paterno was in the final year of his contract, even if no one anticipated the end coming on a quick phone call from the board of trustees telling the man who spent the last 61 years on campus his services would no longer be needed.
The next few months will be difficult to be sure. Yet there are a number of high-profile candidates out there, though it might not take one to jolt some life back into the program. The Nittany Lions are ranked in the Top 15 in mid-November on the talent of players who committed to the program even though they didn’t know or expect the 84-year-old Paterno to be there when they graduated.
“The one slight advantage they have is that all the kids that were looking at Penn State, chose Penn State for reasons other than Joe Paterno,” Farrell said.
When national signing day arrives in February, Paterno won’t be around to tout the next wave of Nittany Lions for the first time since Harry Truman was president. There will be a coach there, however. And there will still be scholarships to offer. And there will be players looking to put on blue-and-white and run through the tunnel and wait for the student section to bounce to the sounds of the band playing “Seven Nation Army.”
One of them could be St. Joseph’s Prep (Philadelphia, Pa.) quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg, a highly touted recruit who chose Penn State, and is the son of Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg.
Mornhinweg has had an interesting recruiting journey already. He originally committed to Stanford, but backed out of it, when former Cardinal coach Jim Harbaugh left for the San Francisco 49ers.
Would he back out again?
“We have to wait to see how things play out,” St. Joseph’s Prep coach Gabe Infante said. “In fairness to the university, and everyone around Penn State football, you have to see how things play out, because one person made an alleged poor decision. It would be prudent for a recruit to take their time.”
Those who do choose Penn State, will do so based largely on faith in the new coach. Not disbelief in what happened in the final days of the last one.
“Football is football,” Farrell said. “These kids are going to look at it differently when a new face is brought in there and a new staff brought in there and they march them out with new president and a new athletic director and say ‘This is the new Penn State.’”
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