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January 24, 2012For Penn State as a community, there may be no harder day than this one, as Joe Paterno is laid to rest.
For Penn State the football program, the hard days are just beginning.
It's impossible to set aside the tumultuous end of the Joe Paterno Era at Penn State, the legend besmirched and untimely ripped from his pedestal amid a cloud of moral wrangling over what should and should not have been done in a child abuse scandal. Determining the degree of Paterno's culpability in a child abuse scandal.
Paterno's culpability - and there was culpability, at least in the abrogation of responsibility - is for another forum, or a different time. We are talking now about a football transition with which long-time residents of Alabama, especially of Tuscaloosa, can identify more closely than any other people in America.
There will be dozens, if not hundreds, of stories and television reports in the coming years comparing Penn State after Paterno to Alabama after Bryant. The shorthand version will be that Alabama struggled for a long time to replace Bryant, finally turned the football coaching over to the best current coach in America and is reaping the rewards. Twenty-nine years after Bryant's death - the anniversary, spookily, is just days away, and will draw some of the inevitable comparisons already mentioned - it is a Golden Era of Alabama football, the third or fourth or fifth Golden Era in the program's history, depending on how one calculates such things. But to view it as a linear progression from the passing of one great coach to the arrival of another misses too much,
For one thing, while it is Nick Saban's program, there is still a Bryant legacy at UA. His prot?, Mal Moore, is the director of athletics. His son, Paul Bryant Jr., is chairman of the Board of Trustees. There was never any rush (nor any reason) to utterly purge Bryant from the program, although there were certainly battles over the proper way to pursue his legacy.
Here is the first thing that Penn State - and especially the new head coach, Bill O'Brien - need to get ready for: There will be a million different agendas at work in State College. Change always means that at least some people will be disenfranchised. And every single person that loses power, or access or just gets upset when the Nittany Lions lose a game, will have the same answer: "It's not the way Joe would have done it." It doesn't matter if the person saying it had a real connection to Paterno. Even if they did, they may not have really understood his thinking. But for years to come, Penn State people will channel Paterno as if they were oracles from Delphi, transplanted to Mt. Nittany.
Ray Perkins, who was no shrinking violet, barely survived the wrath of his own fan base because he chose to take down a tower on the football practice field, an act seen as defiling a Bryant relic. That's right. Moving a tower.
Furthermore, remember that Bryant's departure was Bryant's choice. He knew that the time for change had come, and endorsed it. Paterno, amid controversy and failing health, went unwillingly. The wounds at Penn State are raw, and will be for the foreseeable future.
I don't know Bill O'Brien, but he will have a tough time surviving, no matter how many football games he wins. The jockeying for the control of the program - which hasn't been up for grabs in nearly 50 years - will be intense and, quite probably, toxic.
Unless he is a master politician, and consolidates a power base quickly, he'll be an easy target. One other thing would help him - a strong president, no insignificant factor in Alabama's success these days.
The journey at Alabama over the last 29 years has been complicated. You can't quite call it disastrous. That ignores a 1992 national championship (won by a former Bryant assistant) and a lot of other victories, and a lot of great memories to go with a lot of wretched ones. What finally happened is that people understood that the real legacy of Bryant did not lie in doing things in exactly the way Bryant did them (or the way people perceived that Bryant would have done them). It was in understanding that Bryant would never have let himself be chained by the past - not when he arrived and not when he remade himself and his program in the early 1970s, embracing the wishbone and integration and ushering in another of those Golden Eras.
Perhaps someday, people at Penn State will understand that emulating Paterno on the football field doesn't mean imitating him, or subjecting every decision to some artificial Paterno litmus test. Things are going to have to change at Penn State, because progress anywhere requires change.
But there will be plenty of people against change, and they will wave the banner of Paterno for years.
Perhaps Penn State will return to glory. I hope so - it would be good for college football. Perhaps it won't take as long for
Penn State as it did for Alabama. But it will not be easy, and it will not be quick, and it will not come until the wrangling - and there looks to be the potential for years and years of it - finally subsides.