The Rebuild is over, the End of the Most Impactful Era in School History is here

Almost every lunch break I take at work usually includes reading an assortment of sports news.  It varies from The Ringer, Sports Illustrated, The Athletic among others.  This Wednesday was just another one of those days.  I was reading a piece by Audrey Snyder, a new member of The Athletic who covers Penn State Football.  The article discussed the 25 things we need to know about Penn State football going into camp.  It was a fun read altogether, but point 25 really stuck out to me.  Here it is:

“25. Fifth-year seniors such as McSorley, Thompkins, Allen, Thomas, Farmer, Oruwariye, Scott, Wright and Torrence Brown mark the end of an era. That was the first group of players who committed to Penn State shortly after Franklin arrived, and they couldn’t have envisioned a five-year stretch that started with a pair of 7-6 seasons and jumped to back-to-back 11-win seasons.

This group started with a trip to play UCF in Ireland for Franklin’s Penn State debut and has made trips to the Pinstripe, TaxSlayer, Rose and Fiesta bowls.

“I took that leap from California, had never been here and committed on my visit,” Farmer said. “You could just tell this was a special place. … I remember Coach Franklin wanting to take this place to heights, and it’s amazing where we came from. We had sanctions. … It’s just amazing, and we’re going higher and higher and higher.”

Audrey Snyder via The Athletic

This hit me hard.  I got emotional.  I could not stop thinking about it.

These seniors are not just the end of James Franklin’s first recruiting class, this is the end of the rebuilding era at Penn State, stemming back to the dark days of the Penn State football program.

I remember exactly where I was when the Freeh report was released to the public.  It was July 12th, 2012.  I was taking a college visit at the University of South Florida.  My dad and I were eating lunch at the Beef O Brady’s on campus.  There was one thing I said to him on that day in that restaurant that he stills brings up to this day.  “I want to be part of the rebuild.”

I was in attendance for the first Penn State game in which Joe Paterno was not the head coach of the program since 1966.  I was sitting back in the nosebleeds of the North end zone when the Nittany Lions lost a close game to Nebraska, 17-14.   The most memorable part of that game was when the two teams huddled at midfield before the game to say a prayer.  It was powerful.  It was also in that moment that everyone who was watching realized that Penn State was about to begin an uncertain journey.

“This program was not built by one man, and this as sure as hell is not going to be torn down by one man,” said Michael Mauti on July 25th, 2012 when Michael Zordich and himself confronted the local media a few days after the NCAA sanctions against Penn State were announced.

Outsiders most likely listened to that as something Mauti had to say, but those people do not know the Penn State community, and how much he truly meant it.

Texans head coach Bill O’Brien was the man tasked with bridging the gap between the Paterno regime, and whatever was coming next for the storied program.  In O’Brien’s first year, the team registered an 8-4 record, despite the fact they dropped their first two contests to Ohio and Virginia.  That season also reassured the commitments of 5-star recruits QB Christian Hackenberg and TE Adam Breneman.  These Two, along with O’Brien deserve an immense amount of credit for keeping the program afloat despite sanctions that stripped Penn State of post season appearances for four seasons, a $60 million fine to the university, and ten less scholarships for four years.

I arrived as a student in the fall of 2013, and from there attended every game the next five seasons, except for one (it was for an interview with my current employer, so I like to say that one was probably worth it).  That game was Penn State vs Minnesota in 2016, you know, the one that delayed the hot seat discussion temporarily for James Franklin before the team took down #2 Ohio State two weeks later.  I am not bitter or anything…

That all being said, Penn State football throughout my college experience brought me so much joy, heartbreak, and a disconnect from things happening within my life.

I participated in Nittanyville, where hundreds of students camp out in front of Beaver Stadium for half the week to get front row seats to that week’s game, for nearly every game my freshman year.  I watched UCF quarterback Blake Bortles smoke our underperforming defense.  I got to sit in the second row for the Penn State-Michigan game where Hackenberg sent a prayer to Allen Robinson, leading to a four-overtime thriller in which Bill Belton secured the winning touchdown for the Nittany Lions.  I was able to bring my brother, Patrick, into the student section for the final home game against Nebraska that same season (more on Pat later).  Although the season could have went better, consecutive winning seasons after the NCAA sanctions were handed down was still impressive.

O’Brien after the 2013 season took the head coaching job for the Houston Texans, which he still holds today.  As a result, Penn State hired James Franklin to expand the foundation that O’Brien built.

The first two years of the Franklin era provided skepticism for some, but that was mostly due to the damage of the reduced scholarship allotment effecting the depth on the roster rather than anything the program could realistically control.  Franklin finished with a 7-6 record in his first two years in Happy Valley but left an impression on me.

In the 2014-2015 season, we got the Ireland game against UCF where Sam Ficken knocked in the game winning field goal.  There is also the bullshit Ohio State whiteout game that officiating may or may not have influenced the outcome drastically.  But most importantly, the NCAA repealed some of the sanctions, most notably the bowl ban, which allowed Penn State to attend its first bowl game since the Paterno era.  The team capitalized by defeating Boston College in a thriller where Ficken, the man that could not make a field goal his first season as the Nittany Lion’s kicker, made the game-winning extra point in overtime to cap off his collegiate career.

The 2015-2016 season was bleak, but again, more memories for me.  I traveled to my first ever road Penn State game to Philadelphia to watch the Penn State-Temple game at Lincoln Financial Field.  I am still pissed off about that game to this day.  The weekend of the Rutgers game that season was the same week my parents finalized their divorce.  That Saturday, we tailgated with friends and family that entire day, and discovered that #26 for Penn State might have the potential to be great.  I still to this day can’t get over Grant Haley dropping the interception against Northwestern to give Franklin his first top 25 win as the head coach of Penn State.  Penn State lost their last four games of the 2015-2016 season, but the backup quarterback, Trace McSorley, showed some promise for next season during the TaxSlayer bowl against Georgia.

The beginning of the 2016-2017 season brought many of the same concerns that the end of the previous season did.  The Pitt game was embarrassing.  The Michigan game was three steps above embarrassing.  I was one of the many people calling for a coaching change.  I was so disappointed, sad, and confused.  But the next weekend, when I was away in Illinois interviewing for a summer job, everything changed.  Saquon Barkley performed a juke move that shifted the trajectory of the Penn State Nittany Lions football program.  Two weeks later, the impossible happened.  “It’s Blocked!  Lions scoop it up.  Grant Haley will score!!!!”  Pat is my good luck charm.  He was by my side this whole game.  We stormed the field after the 4th down sack that allowed the offense to kneel the ball to the end of the game.  Nothing like it.  Except for a few weeks later when we got the opportunity to experience a Big Ten Championship weekend.  Pat and I arrived in Indianapolis that Friday, and woke up at 4am Saturday morning to get front row seats for College Gameday.  I got to see guys like Kirk Herbstreit, Lee Corso, Rece Davis, and Desmond Howard that I watched on Saturday mornings up close in person.  We tailgated all afternoon, and later that night got to witness something that many critics did not believe was ever going to happen again: a Penn State Big Ten Championship title.  Barkley’s wheel route catch over TJ Watt is still my screen saver to this day, and I am not sure if that’ll ever change.  Pat’s optimism got me through that game.  I was a mess at halftime.  My pessimistic sports fandom is effectively balanced by Pat’s optimistic approach.

That day represented so much more beyond sports.  This was the final event that completed the rebuild.  It signified Penn State was back to being a championship contender.  That win brought me a lot of joy personally.  My favorite thing about sports is the impact is has outside of the game being played on the field.  Your life could be falling apart at home, you could be having anxiety about your job, there might be some craziness happening in the country, but there is something about sports that makes all those worries just disappear temporarily.

The 2017-2018 brought along another slew of memories.  College Gameday returned for the first time since 2009 for the primetime showdown between Michigan and Penn State.  Beaver Stadium recorded its largest attendance number in history with 110,823 that same day.  I witnessed heartbreak during my trip to Columbus to attend the Penn State-Ohio State matchup where the Nittany Lions blew a 21-point lead.  Pat called me right after the game apologizing for not making the trip with me.  Sounds ridiculous, but that is what fandom does to you.  The bizarre four-hour rain delay Michigan State game ripped apart whatever was left of my heart from the previous week.  But you know what?  Penn State made a New Year Six bowl for the second consecutive year, and this time defeated an impressive Washington team, 35-28.

I told myself that I wanted to be part of the rebuild back in 2012.  If you would have told me that by my last year of college Penn State would be coming off back to back New Year Six bowls, and earning a Big Ten Championship in the same division that Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh were coaching in, I would of said you are fucking insane.  And that is why Penn State is different.  The sanctions brought upon Penn State would have crippled 99 percent of college programs around the country.  Not Penn State.

James Franklin’s last recruits from his first recruiting class is the final sentimental class that Penn State has in the rebuilding era.  Players like McSorley, DeAndre Thompkins, Mark Allen, Koa Farmer, Amani Oruwariye, Nick Scott, Chaz Wright, Torrence Brown, and the rest of the class were the first ones to buy into Franklin, and recognize he could build a culture that could generate sustained success, even when some of us from the outside had our doubts two years in.  These guys will forever be recognized in the history of the Penn State football program.

From now on, Penn Staters will be looking back at a recruiting class seeing how many of those players get drafted into the NFL, just like I used to do with the early 2000’s teams.  This is my first year not having student season tickets in five years, but I accomplished what I wanted when I enrolled as an engineering student; being part of the Penn State rebuild.  We made it.

Now it is time to take the next step forward: a National Championship.  Penn State has the 4th best odds of winning the Big Ten Championship this coming season.  I guess we are just going to have to prove everyone wrong again…

We Are and always will be Penn State.

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