How to Rebuild Penn State
Schools hit with major penalties tend to take a step backwards in terms of wins and losses. Penn State was likely to do that anyway this season with a transition to a new coaching staff and a win-loss record in 2011 that included a lot of close wins (5-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less). Historically, teams that win a lot of tight games often aren't so lucky the following year. Both the overall recruiting momentum and roster are going to take hits, which will likely be evident on the field. So how do the Nittany Lions recover from this transition as quickly as possible to become a contender in their division?
If you think about what the Nittany Lions now have to offer recruits it's a quality education, a winning tradition, early playing time, and an exciting game-day atmosphere. But with no post-season or possibility of a conference championship over the next four years, it's a little like choosing Duke or Indiana. At least those schools have a mathematical opportunity of playing in a bowl game. Any Penn State recruit has to be content with no postseason. How do you make that palatable to a recruit that could otherwise choose another Big Ten school? You probably aren't going to lure too many kids away from Michigan. But a packed stadium might give an edge over Indiana or Minnesota. It's up to the fans to continue to show up, even when they know their school won't be a contender for a while.
Keep the New Coach
When Bill O'Brien starts losing games that they think he ought to have won or that Joe Paterno would have won, don't call for his head. In Texas Hold'em terms, he's been dealt off-suited deuce-seven. Changing coaches isn't likely to make things better and are quite likely to make them worse. You also don't want to give O'Brien an excuse to skip town. There's been enough uncertainty without asking players that are free to transfer to wait around during a coaching search or to adapt to new schemes. Barring any ethical lapses, O'Brien should be given a minimum of five seasons before any consideration is given to his win-loss record.
Beat the Little Guys
As bad as things get at Penn State in the next few years, they can't start losing to Indiana. In some ways, the game with Purdue each year might be one of the biggest. Maintaining an edge on Illinois would be huge. If beating the likes of Virginia becomes too tall an order, you at least have to take out the Eastern Michigan's and Kent State's that appear on the schedule. Beating Akron or Minnesota may not be something to beat your chest about, but winning five or six games is way better than one or two. If a generation of high school players see the Nittany Lions become a one or two win team, it's going to be that much harder to lure them to State College once the sanctions are lifted. PSU should make no apologies if they adopt the 1990's Kansas State non-conference scheduling philosophy for a while. Beating Buffalo doesn't make you a world-beater, but taking a pounding from Alabama while you're short-handed doesn't make much sense either.
It seemed unlikely that the Big Ten could keep four teams among the top six nationally in winning percentage as they had over the past 50 years (Nebraska [#1], Ohio State [#2], Penn State [#4], and Michigan [#6]). Out of that quartet, Penn State seems to be in for the toughest decade. How things are handled over the next five to ten years though, may do a lot to determine how they play out in the decades that follow. The Nittany Lions need patient fans, patience with their coach, and enough wins over lesser teams in the coming years to attract top recruits again two presidential elections from now. Otherwise, we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of PSU as a college football power.