It’s truly a remarkable contradiction, the Penn State football experience. On one hand, you have Joe Paterno, so deeply steeped in tradition that it might well be his picture in the encyclopedia under “college football,” a man who represents all the good in the sport, and someone who goes about it in the least conspicuous way possible. While other Big Ten teams have embraced change, Penn State, for better or worse, is all about the basics.
Other teams have instituted revolutionary spread offenses. Penn State hasn’t changed theirs much since the days of Richie Lucas and Chuck Burkhardt. Other teams have signed on with Nike to produce cluttered new jerseys. Penn State’s only shift was to go even more basic, removing the accented piping from theirs. And of course, the man at the top of the food chain has been around longer than the rest of the conference’s coaches combined, twice over. Everything about this university’s football team induces nostalgia.
Except, that is, for the football atmosphere at Beaver Stadium. While Penn State has remained grounded in its roots on the gridiron, the gameday experience just outside it has lost its soul.
I never had the pleasure to experience a Nittany Lion game before this new era, but I imagine it couldn’t have been more different. Yet with each new addition, every seating addition, renovation, or construction project that has built up Beaver Stadium from an erector set in the middle of a cow pasture to the second largest stadium in the Western Hemisphere, there has been a corresponding loss in the heart of this program, a diversion from what it has always meant to be a part of Penn State football.
There must have been a time when the Blue Band was responsible for all the music played in the stadium, from fight songs and cheers to song breaks between plays. I’m sure that the “Mic Man,” that generic, faceless male cheerleader, hasn’t been the one introducing Penn State as they crossed through the tunnel, or starting chants. And I wonder just when the decision was made that whenever there is a stop in the action—between plays, or quarters, or during timeouts—that some corporate sponsor needs to be recognized.
But I’m sure that it was only recently that Penn State rebranded itself “The Greatest Show in College Football,” and since then, they’ve been trying so hard to deserve that label that it’s come at the cost of earning it.
Indeed, this era has been characterized by a disorienting shift away from the beautiful eccentricities of the college game and towards the faceless corporatism of the NFL. The only difference, now, is that one quarter of the stadium is filled with college students—who, it must be said, were abandoned by the athletic department. Rather than reserve some of the best seats in the house for the individuals this team, this stadium, and this school exists for, the students were shuffled off to the worst seats in the building, all in the name of increasing profits.
The STEP program hasn’t made students its only casualty, but also those old-schoolers who remember when Penn State hired that young whippersnapper, Joe Paterno, and had front row seats to see his first season. Sure, increasing revenues was an important aim, but in doing so, this university has acted in a way so contradictory to the long-stated aims of the football team we all gather to watch. And judging by the thousands of empty seats two weeks ago, and the horde of red in a sea of white last Saturday, perhaps that disenfranchisement has spread further than anyone thought possible.
Of course, this is about more than just seats. It’s about taking that which separated college football from the pro game, and reducing it as much as possible.
College football doesn’t boast better athletes than the NFL, nor are the games typically better played, or coached. There’s not a great level of parity, such that when two teams take the field, you often truly don’t know who will win. The fact is, college football, taken solely on its own merits, would pale in comparison.
But the reason it doesn’t, that’s the heart of it all. The players, we say, are doing it for the love of the game, not to fulfill a multi-million dollar contract. The fans rally around their team with such a fervor that nothing else compares. And it all arose organically, just like Penn State. This team, this stadium, this experience: this isn’t our birthright. No, it built up over years and years to reach this point, and that’s the charm of our old erector set. It’s not quite a palimpsest, but rather a tradition we made years ago and continue to add to, with each new number on the facing of the east side luxury boxes.
Yet, we’ve sought to abandon that in the name of—well, I’m not quite sure. Marketing, perhaps. Branding. Somewhere along the line, someone decided that Penn State was too old-school, too traditional to keep up with the Joneses, and so they’ve stuck tradition in a corner, deep in the bowels of Beaver Stadium.
You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!
College football isn’t about Sweet Caroline, or sing-a-long rendition of pop hits—with the lyrics proudly displayed on the video boards. And speaking of those video boards, the advertisements lining them are larger and more conspicuous than the screens themselves. But that’s quite alright, because more often than showing a replay, there’s just another commercial.
When things are going well for Penn State, there might be no arena more daunting for the opposition. Beaver Stadium may only be the second largest stadium in America, but it’s behind the notoriously quiet Michigan Stadium, which is far less intimidating than its prodigious size would suggest. But that’s been both a blessing and a curse. Football is expected to earn the revenues that fund every other varsity sport, and each spot for Blue Cross Blue Shield subsidizes a cross-country trip for the women’s gymnastics team.
But that’s no excuse for the other shameful exercises in betraying what Penn State, and college football, are all about. There’s no reason for piped-in music to ever supersede the Blue Band, to reduce their contribution to the game’s atmosphere to a sad footnote. No, it won’t get the stadium shaking after a big play—literally—like Zombie Nation does, but that’s no reason to let cheesy 1980s pop permeate through the proceedings. At this point, I’m almost amazed that it’s the band, not Bruce Channel, leading the chants of “Hey, Baby,” and that nobody’s apparently decided “Seven Nation Army” might be too hard for them. Every moment that they’re just standing there, clutching their saxophones or trumpets or tubas, just waiting, hoping that maybe they’ll get to put their instrument to use, a little piece of the soul of Penn State football dies.
It’s not all bad, of course. The Whiteout has been an ingenious revelation, unlike the failed Code Blue of years prior; often imitated but never matched. But look at that 2005 Ohio State game, the one that we all remember fondly. That day, it wasn’t an entire stadium of white-clad partisans cheering on their Lions, just those who chose that over blue. And when Tamba Hali sacked Troy Smith to seal the deal on the biggest win in the past decade, “Song 2” didn’t come over the loudspeaker. Neither did Zombie Nation.
No. Beaver Stadium was left with only the deafening cheers of 110,000 echoing throughout. And that hasn’t happened since.