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about a year ago

Learning to Accept Change Through Football

BOB Gates

People who are familiar with my personality can describe me in about 7 clear words:

I like sports, and I dislike change.

The craziest example that showcases my distaste for change comes from when I was four years old. The hairdresser that my family frequented moved from a short ten minute drive in the Philadelphia suburbs to over ninety minutes away in New Jersey. For more than a year, I refused to have my hair cut by anyone else and made my mom make the three hour roundtrip drive to this new location, screaming and crying when she initially refused.

I like to believe I have matured a bit since then, but the fear of breaking away from specific routines and beginning new life developments always held strong.

In that respect, it is perhaps fitting that I ended up at Penn State when it was time to select a college.

It may be impossible to find a sports team at any level that theoretically hated change more than the Nittany Lions Football program. Joe Paterno walked the sidelines for 46 years, surviving four losing seasons in five campaigns at the turn of the century. His right-hand man for the final stretch of it – Tom Bradley—was affiliated with Penn State Football for nearly four decades. Paterno’s son Jay, to the dismay of some frustrated fans, was an assistant coach for 17 years. Any type of subtle change in the game day experience caused an uproar and even removing colored trim from the sleeves of uniforms generates attention. The thought of adding names to the back of jerseys — as is currently the case — was as unlikely as it was unsavory.

People like what they know, and a shift from the status quo is generally avoided at all costs — at least, I try.

On those rare occasions, however, change is impossible to avoid, and that was the inevitable situation one year ago this week. In the weeks following the firing of Joe Paterno, fans of the Blue and White began to wonder who their next head coach would be. As the hopes of Urban Meyer faded away, surely the chosen one would be someone with university connections who had been molded into a man at Dear Old State.

Maybe Al Golden or Mike Munchak would come back, who had carved out successful careers elsewhere, or at the very least, the loyal assistant in Bradley, who bought his time waiting for an opportunity and filled in admirably last November in the only place he ever knew.

57 days later, the final result could not have been further from what most envisioned. Bill O’Brien never played or coached at Penn State, and most did not even know who he was when his name was announced.

The initial thought of a random outsider frightened people including a few notable Penn State Lettermen. More changes were on the horizon upon O’Brien’s hiring. Gone were long-time assistants like the younger Paterno, Bradley, Galen Hall, and Dick Anderson. Hats were allowed inside the Lasch Building — and could (gasp) be worn backwards — and facial hair was also permitted.

It did not stop there. Early morning workouts in blistery February weather featuring an overhauled strength and conditioning program with music blasting through loud speakers became an offseason fixture.

Additional disheartening news led to controversial decisions a few months later. Paternoville turned into Nittanyville. Names were put on uniforms, and players transferred from the program following NCAA sanctions. On the darkest day in program history, inevitably, change abounded.

Perhaps not everyone fears it as much as I once did, but as college students, we should all be able to relate to change. It is anticipated and at the same time often unexpected. A new role in a campus club or organization can impact an everyday routine and lifestyle. On a bigger scale outside of the Happy Valley bubble, we compete for internships and jobs that generate pressing questions. “Where will I live?” “Will I have enough money to support myself?” Will this take me away from my significant other?”

A few weeks from now will be my final Thanksgiving break as a college student. It might be my final Thanksgiving when I call my childhood home my place of residence. I am scared for the future but not the way I would have been last October. I worry about not living up to expectations that I have set for myself and others have set for me, but I no longer shake at the thought of change itself. My friends assure me that I am going to be okay. “You’re great at what you do. You’ll go far.”

I appreciate their encouragement but have found confidence from a much different group of people. Upon returning after Thanksgiving, I will cover my final football game for Onward State. At this point in time, it is tough for me to imagine Tuesdays without cold stares from O’Brien for asking a question he dislikes or Saturdays without sitting in a press box sending tweets and going over postgame interview recordings.

Players are expected to provide me with answers to a few questions every week, but the entire time, they have been teaching me a valuable life lesson. Referring to a collection of student-athletes as victims is an injustice to the true victims here whose lives were damaged, but they were punished for something they had no part in.

There are 109 names on the official football roster. None of them signed up for the horrid story that occurred last November and less than a third of them originally committed to play for this new regime, but they all stayed loyal to Penn State, providing a lesson in adapting to unforeseen circumstances.

One year later, another game against Nebraska approaches, and this time, rather than chaos, there is a sense of calmness. Zack Zwinak and Bill Belton will line up in the backfield instead of Silas Redd. Sam Ficken will attempt field goals and extra points rather than Anthony Fera, and Allen Robinson will catch passes from Matt McGloin as opposed to Justin Brown. The record is not quite as good, and there have been some real low points including an inexplicable loss to a poor Virginia team, but the program has survived.

Virginia setbacks will occur throughout life. The key is making sure it is simply a blip on the radar and not a defining moment.

Sometimes, it is time for a new hairstyle. The past year has made me realize that I am going to be alright, and so is this community.

Just take a look at your football team.

image Dave Cole
Football - The Penn State Nittany Lions football program currently resides in the Big Ten conference and has won two National Championships. Known for tradition, Beaver Stadium, and Joe Paterno, the program is a point of pride and solidarity in the community. Read more