The uniforms have names, the offense operates with a fast tempo previously unseen in Happy Valley, and the strength and conditioning program is completely different, but after a year that featured wholesale changes on all levels of the Penn State football program, one thing remains the same.
Several student-athletes who step onto the Beaver Stadium turf on Saturdays are still achieving academic success in the classroom.
In fact, they did it in record numbers during the recently completed fall semester as an all-time high 20 Nittany Lions earned Dean’s List recognition, breaking a previous high of 19 set in 2008. The 20 individuals are part of a larger group of 47 players who recorded a GPA of 3.0 or higher according to a press release.
With these numbers, 51 football players had a GPA above 3.0 at the conclusion of the semester, and 38 of them are back now, highlighted by starting right guard John Urschel, a 4.0 mathematics student and academic All-American who is teaching a geometry class this semester.
While Urschel might be the face of the academic achievement, he is not alone as evidenced by the numbers. Several other returning players were also among the 20 who made Dean’s List including defensive end Brad Bars, linebacker Ben Kline, kicker Sam Ficken, offensive tackle Nate Cadogan, and safeties Jesse Della Valle and Ryan Keiser.
The beginning of the offseason allowed Bill O’Brien–who has carried on the success of Joe Paterno’s grand experiment–to hold exit interviews with players where he learned more about their academic lives away from football.
“You’re talking about all these different majors that these guys have, and it’s incredible: communications, history, just unbelievable types of majors, English, business,” said Penn State’s head coach at a recent press conference.
On July 23rd as NCAA president Mark Emmert punished the football program, he insulted Penn State’s athletic culture claiming that it did not “enhance the integrity of higher education.” To say that Emmert’s words and actions prompted these achievements would be preposterous, but something needs to be said about the way a perceived challenge was answered.
College students both of past and present should be able to relate. It is a time in one’s life where mistakes sometimes happen and mulligans are expected.
Everyone has been there before, when something does not go the right way, and it impacts studying and focusing on schoolwork. Combine unprecedented sanctions with the ultra-demanding schedule of being a football player that allows for little free time and lack of productivity, and it is not too far-fetched to see how other facets of life could be impacted. That was clearly not the case when it came to school.
Back in December, the football team was recognized for its 91 percent graduation rate while the entire athletic department saw 100 fall athletes receive Academic All-Big Ten honors. At this point, recognition is almost a formality, but that does not make it any less special, perhaps quite the opposite given Emmert’s comments and the past year.
As previously discussed, change can be good and necessary, but one of the founding principles of Nittany Lion football has remained constant.