The 2016-17 Penn State football season was a movie I almost wish I could write an alternate ending for — but a different ending wouldn’t give us anything we didn’t have before the Rose Bowl.
This season has been nothing short of incredible (and incredibly memorable). Though there were far more wins than losses and far more wins than originally anticipated, perhaps the most important thing to come of this football season was the sense of community it fostered. It brought Penn Staters of all generations together.
There’s nothing beating Alabama in the College Football Championship could give us that we need to define this season. What we found in Beaver Stadium, Beaver Canyon, and Pasadena is a far greater reward than any championship title.
That’s why losing the Rose Bowl isn’t killing the Penn State community as much as some thought it might. Sure, it stings — the game was as thrilling yet heartbreaking as any could be — but the moments this season gave us and the experiences we’ve had along the way will long outweigh the pain of losing.
The last nine games of the season got us used to watching Penn State go down early, make a second-half comeback, and hold the lead through the final whistle. And who would’ve imagined that? How often do you get to watch your team go into the locker room at halftime losing but not be worried that the game is on the line? We knew game after game it’d find a way to fight back. We believed.
Everyone knows it’s more fun when you’re winning, and that adage is perhaps most true when it comes to being a Penn State football fan. There are no words I can sit here and write to describe how fun this season has been, but I trust if you’re reading this you’ve already experienced those feelings on your own. That connection is what will force this team and this year to be remembered as long as there’s Penn State football being played. No matter which championships the Nittany Lions win or rivals they defeat from here on out, this season is the one that made us believe. It gave us hope and bonded the Penn State community like we never expected it would.
Penn State football was supposed to go 6-6 this year, or maybe even 7-5 with some luck. The Lions were supposed to beat the Kent States and the Marylands and play in some middle-tier bowl game sponsored by some company who got to plaster its name on everything. James Franklin was on a hot seat. Penn State wasn’t supposed to travel to the Big Ten Championship or The Granddaddy of Them All. We didn’t expect the chance to celebrate or cry after winning and losing, respectively. We didn’t expect to win anything, but we believed in the team every step of the way, at times unconditionally and at times with a criticism you can only have for something you love so much.
Walking around campus was magical after the Lions won the Ohio State and Michigan State games and the Big Ten Championship last semester. Folks came together in a way only football could make possible. Of course, we’ve been brought together before — only Penn Staters know what it’s like to have been through what we have. We’ve been called a cult time and time again, but this season bonded us in a different way. Positive fresh air breathed life into a group exhausted by misunderstanding. As students, we finally had more to connect us than the fact that we’ve all been the punchline of a “Joe knew” jab, and as a student body we’re able to relate to the generations of alumni and fans before us who lived and loved a great Penn State football team. We were finally able to experience firsthand what that’s like, and it’s something we didn’t need a national title or even a Rose Bowl trophy to receive. In fact, it’s something we had even before kickoff on Monday.
I’ve been disheartened by the student-alumni gap more than once before. For some alumni, it’s hard to understand why students resort to destroying State College to celebrate big wins. For some students, it’s hard to understand why some alumni regard Joe Paterno more like a god than a football coach. But I think this season everyone was on the same page, at one point or another, or at least for a little while. One thing I learned, in part from the thousands of fans making the trip to California, is the support and tradition are going to carry over to next year — a year where expectations are already high for this young team.
More than that, my hope for next season is that we’ll be able to bring a new generation of Penn State fans into the family and show them what we all learned this season — it’s great to love Penn State, no matter the final score. It’s seen in things like students coming to every home football game and organizing 16-hour bus trips to a championship in Indiana in less than a week. It’s older fans welcoming younger ones for a beer at their tailgates and alumni offering advice to one another on the best ways to overnight a forgotten Rose Bowl ticket. It’s Penn Staters staying all four quarters at Rutgers despite the miserable conditions and students bearing tasteless scandal jokes in Pittsburgh. It’s in that Friday-before-a-home-game feeling and in storming the field after beating Ohio State. It’s in doing whatever we have to do to travel to California to cheer on Penn State in a New Years Six bowl game.
So yes, the heartbreaking Rose Bowl loss to USC does hurt — at least for now. But the future is brighter than we ever could have hoped at this point. It’s an unbelievable time to be a Penn Stater.