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December 31, 2012

Best of BWI: Traditions change as Lions move forward

* This story appeared in the October 2012 edition of Blue White Illustrated. We continue today with our 'Best of BWI' series today by featuring magazine editor Matt Herb's focus on the evolving traditions at Penn State in the past 12 months.

To order a subscription to BWI magazine, click here.

By Matt Herb
Bluewhiteonline.com


Listen to "Sweet Caroline" for any length of time - three or four seconds ought to suffice - and it becomes obvious that Neil Diamond was not thinking sports anthem when he sat down to compose. With its major chords and breezy lyric, "Sweet Caroline" does not call to mind suicide squeezes or blindside sacks. Nor is it supposed to; it was inspired by Caroline Kennedy.

Yet the song has been adopted by a number of college and pro teams, including Penn State. When it was reported in August that "Sweet Caroline" would no longer be heard over the loudspeakers at Beaver Stadium - seemingly because the Sandusky scandal had lent its sing-along chorus a disturbing undertone, though Penn State officials denied that was the case - the online reaction among Nittany Lion fans was swift and unmerciful.

"A stupid decision made by stupid little cowards," wrote one aggrieved fan on AltoonaMirror.com. "This super [political correctness] is crazy - all because NO ONE has a backbone."

"What's next?" asked an irate commenter on CNN.com. "Will they come to all of our houses and remove any Penn State stuff we have?"

Added another, "Our leadership totally sucks."

That a piece of piped-in music from the 1960s could inspire outrage just goes to show how seriously Penn Staters regard the school's sports traditions. With the post-Paterno era under way, some of those traditions are evolving, and a lot of people have mixed feelings about the changes that have occurred. When Penn State announced in July that it was putting players' names on the backs of their jerseys for the first time, former Nittany Lion tight end Troy Drayton called it "blasphemy" and vowed that he wouldn't watch any of the team's games this season. Melodramatic? Maybe, but Penn State has been going through a lot of upheaval in the past year, and the university's traditions are part of its institutional identity - an identity that lately has come to seem as if it's under assault.

"What's happened here," Penn State sports historian Lou Prato said, "is that we're under scrutiny from the guilt-by-association people in the general public. Once, Penn State could walk out on the field and it stood for purity and everything that was good about college football. Now we are seen as the villains of college football, and perception is reality. [Bill] O'Brien and some others are walking on eggshells. He's changed some of the traditions for cultural reasons and others [to signify] that Penn State is different from now on. And it is."

Some saw the nameless jerseys as emblematic not just of Penn State but of Joe Paterno. The uniforms, coupled with Paterno's strict personal grooming policies, reflected an emphasis on team identity and a distaste for showy expressions of individuality. When O'Brien announced he was changing the uniforms, it seemed to some like a repudiation of an old-fashioned worldview that fans, alumni and players had long embraced. As Drayton told the York Daily Record, "I just think there are certain things you don't touch, and that's one of them. That's a part of Penn State history. Changing it changes everything for me. Maybe I'm a purist."

But O'Brien emphasized that the team would still come first, even though players would be receiving a bit more on-field recognition and would be free to take their personal grooming inspiration from whatever source they saw fit, be it GQ or the WWE.

"I have respect for all the traditions that have gone on before I came here, and so what I decided to do was not to put my own stamp on the program, but to just put our own philosophy as a staff into place," he said. "When we decided to put the names on the back of the jerseys, I felt it was important for the people out there to really know who these kids were who stuck with this program, who stuck with this university, who are going to help this community move forward. I felt it was important for the people to know who these kids were and what their names were, because when you put the helmet on, you can't really tell sometimes.

"At the end of the day, though, what we've talked about to our team since day one is that we play as one team. We play off of each other. Offense gains momentum, defense has to stop the offense and vice versa. Defense gets a turnover, offense has to turn that into points. We play as one team.

"It has nothing to do with individuals. It's more about people on the outside just knowing what these kids are all about moving forward and that these kids are high-character guys who really care about Penn State. That's why I decided to put the names on the back of the jerseys."

Though controversial in some sections of Beaver Stadium, O'Brien's decision does have support, even from longtime fans. Said Prato, "I actually enjoyed seeing the names on the jerseys. I didn't need to look at the frickin' program to see who was making the play."

There have been other changes - some symbolic, others logistical. The Paterno statue is gone, its pavilion having been bulldozed and replaced by a grassy embankment and a row of trees. Paternoville, the student encampment that for years has been a fixture outside Beaver Stadium during game weeks, is now known as Nittanyville. And the team's pregame routine is different, too, with players dressing at the stadium rather than at the Lasch Building.

O'Brien has looked a little bit perplexed at times by the preoccupation with off-the-field minutia. Before the team's opener against Ohio, he emphasized that Penn State would be following the same route to the stadium as before. He described how the buses would get to the stadium and joked that he would probably get some flak for not knowing the names of the streets.

In years past, players would be in uniform as they got off the buses, and fans would crowd around to cheer them on as they entered the tunnel. For the opener against the Bobcats, the team arrived at 9:20 a.m. - nearly three hours before kickoff - and while the bus route was still lined with thousands of faithful fans, many others were sitting in traffic as the team approached. Little things like that matter to a lot of fans, and O'Brien has tried to reach out to them. "I'm not trying to say that that's not a big deal," he said. "I'm just trying to say that what is a big deal is how we play when the ball is kicked off."

The Ohio game wasn't a great day for the program's more militant traditionalists. There were the uniforms, of course, and while O'Brien had said in the spring that he was looking to start a new tradition by having the team sing the Alma Mater to the crowd after every home game, that didn't happen. Following the Lions' 24-14 loss, players hustled off the field quietly. "I messed that up," O'Brien said a few days later. "It was completely my fault."

Penn State certainly isn't the only school that takes its traditions seriously. Every school has something to rally around, to get fans excited and bind each new generation of alumni to those that preceded it. Are Penn Staters any more attached to "Sweet Caroline" or "Kernkraft 400" than Wisconsinites are to "Jump Around"? Do fans in Beaver Stadium cheer more loudly for the drum major's flip than fans at Ohio State do for the dotting of the "i"? Is the Nittany Lion more beloved than Uga or Bevo or Sparty? Probably not.

But many of those other traditions have proven more malleable than Penn State's, more susceptible to the passage of time. Uga may be a fixture on Georgia's sideline, but there've been nine Ugas over the years and four backup mascots who have been forced to fill in at times for ailing Ugas, a list that includes Bugga Lou, Argos, Otto, Magillicuddy I and Russ. At Texas, 14 steers have served as Bevo over the years, and some say that the tradition hasn't been the same since Bevo V got loose and charged the Baylor marching band. Notre Dame's famous gold helmets are a big part of its tradition, but that didn't prevent Adidas, the apparel company that outfits the team, from unveiling a new look that the Irish will wear for a neutral-site game next month against Miami. The uniforms feature a helmet with an asymmetrical design that's roughly 66 percent gold, 33 percent blue and, to hear many of the program's subway alumni tell it, 100 percent ugly.

What made Penn State different from those schools was the feeling that its traditions would remain forever unchanged. There might be a new kid inside the Nittany Lion costume from one year to the next, but the costume itself would always stay the same. The uniforms might undergo minor tweaks here and there - a stripe added or subtracted, a patch relocated - but they would remain unmistakably plain. Penn State might not be unique in having an array of game day traditions, but it could cling to them with a crazed ferocity, insisting that they never be tampered with in any way, shape or form.

O'Brien reinforced those feelings when he said following his introduction in January that he had no intention of changing the uniforms. Players, he said, "are going to learn right away how important the team is to me. So no names on the back of the jerseys, a modest uniform - white helmets, blue jerseys - those are the things that are very, very important to me. I can tell you right now that we are not touching that. That is a huge part of what we are all about."

But six months later, circumstances had changed drastically. A succession of awful news - the Sandusky trial, the Freeh report, the NCAA's announcement of major sanctions - had created an environment in which Penn State seemingly needed to make a clean break with the past. O'Brien was succinct when asked whether the changes might annoy traditionalists. Said the Nittany Lions' first-year coach, "Turn the page."

Turning the page is not an easy thing for Penn Staters to do, especially now. And while the devotion to tradition might seem suffocating at times, it's indicative of the passion that students and alumni have for Penn State. In August, the school finished first in the inaugural College Colors Day Spirit Cup competition. Fans were encouraged to "pledge allegiance" to their school through an online voting effort organized by the Collegiate Licensing Company. Penn State received 44,801 pledges, outdistancing Texas A&M, Missouri, West Virginia and Alabama.

Online polling may not be a scientific way of determining whose school has the most devoted fans. But the results of the College Colors poll jibed with those of a New York Times survey conducted in 2011 that used a variety of measures, such as Web clicks, online polling and game attendance, to determine which college football program had the most fans. Penn State finished third in that survey behind Michigan and Ohio State.

O'Brien has been mindful of the need to keep those fans engaged. But he's also been plowing ahead. He was asked recently about the team's ride to the stadium and whether he would be the first one off the bus as Paterno always was.

"I might be driving the bus," he said. "Do you need a special license to drive one of those things? People had better get out of the way if I'm driving it."


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