A crisis on the border exists. The new immigrants are not assimiliating peacefully into the native culture, and a tempest is brewing. No, we're not down on the Mexican border with the Minutemen. Rather, the crisis exists on the mythical border Penn State crossed when it emigrated to the Big Ten in 1993. After Saturday, a full-fledged rebellion is brewing.
Nittany Lion fans are livid over an official's decision to put two additional seconds on the clock during Michigan's final drive. The last play, on which Chad Henne fired the touchdown pass that doomed Penn State's hopes of a national crown, started with one tick remaining. Joe Paterno called the added time "baloney" and said he was given no reason for the decision. To Penn State fans, this call is just the latest in what they perceive as a long list of grievances, against their new conference. Talking to Penn State fans, one realizes they can recite the Litany of Big Ten Woe, with the same rhythmic fervor that Catholics recite the Litany of the Sacred Heart. In 2002, Paterno had several celebrated run-ins with the officials, while his team lost three heartbreaking games. In 1994, when Penn State & Nebraska were both unbeaten and vying for #1, I am told that Lion fans honestly expected their new conference to work out an arrangement where State would not have to fulfill its Rose Bowl commitment, and instead figure out a way to let them play the Huskers. (Recall, the current BCS format, that guarantees #1 vs. #2 was not in place until 1998). To make matters worse, when the votes came out, Big Ten Country went overwhelmingly for Nebraska as the national champion. Whereas in 1997, it was Michigan and Nebraska who were unbeaten and unable to play...and the Wolverines carried their home region to a share of the national crown. At the bottom of Penn State's Litany of Woe is the simple question--has the change to the Big Ten been beneficial for them? The mindset of Lion Nation appears to be decidedly "no". Are they right?
The negatives of Penn State's twelve-year affiliation are legitimate. When the Lions were added to the conference, they got brought added exposure for the conference in eastern markets. Schools like Wisconsin, Iowa and Purdue were now being seen more frequently by prospects in the Philadelphia area, which includes talent-rich New Jersey. And it was into the Garden State that Wisconsin went for '99 Heisman winner Ron Dayne. This is merely the most prominent example of the raiding of turf that Penn State once owned. What did the Lions get in return? Access to players in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin? Hardly reason to get excited. Players in Chicago? If PSU's basketball team was any good, it might help, but there's nothing to help Joe Paterno in the Windy City. Clearly, this was a one-sided trade in favor of the Big Ten.
But on the positive side for State's Big Ten ties, do any of their diehards honestly believe they could still hack it is an independent? Joining a conference would have been foolish in the 1970s, or even the 1980s when the Notre Dame, Penn State, Miami, Florida State, and an occassional interloper like a Pitt or West Virginia owned college football. Those days are gone, and TV contracts and access to bowl games is dependent on conference affiliation. If Penn State is riding high, they don't need a conference to get these advantages. But in the age of scholarship limits and increasing parity, what about the years when they are down? Big Ten schools, due to their collective bargaining power have virtually every conference game on television. That's a natural built-in cushion, enabling schools to still recruit, even when the wins are a little sparse. Who's to say the Lions would have garnered any of their celebrated freshmen if their recent 3-9 teams hadn't been on TV all the time. If Penn State went independent--or even took the less-drastic step joining the Big East, do they really think their bad teams of the past five years would have gotten on TV? Bad Big East teams and independents don't get on the tube. Either that, or there's been a flood of Rutgers and Navy games all over their airwaves that I've just happened to miss.
Even Notre Dame is having an increasingly difficult time hacking it is an independent. The Irish can get their own TV deal with NBC, but it has come at a price. Notre Dame cannot schedule it's way to a national title. Network execs aren't going to look well upon paying for seven or eight games against Vanderbilts and Tulsas of the world, just to get a couple signature games each year. And that was the sort of scheduling strategy the Lions used throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Even in the unlikely event they could broker their own independent television contract--and it's hard to imagine it being much more then a regionalized East Coast deal--they would have to load the schedule up to the point that legitimate competition for a national title would be virtually impossible. And it's that coveted goal that has Lion fans up in arms in the first place.
Let me say here first and foremost, I like Penn State and respect Joe Paterno greatly. Growing up in Wisconsin, following a then-awful Badger team, the Nittany Lions and the Irish were the teams I rooted for to win national championships. I still recall dancing about my living room when Pete Giftopolous picked off Vinny Testaverde to seal the stunning upset in the '86 Fiesta Bowl, and my first college football memory at age eight is virtually sobbing when Alabama stuffed them on the goal line in the 1978 Sugar Bowl. So I do not mean hostility to Lion Nation, when I say this--get over it, and get into reality. You need the Big Ten more then it needs you. If the Lions left today, the conference would still thunder on, still get televison contracts, and still lock up 6-7 bowl bids a year for its members. As for Penn State--they might survive. They might go to the Big East, dominate it, and be able to have their cake and eat it too, when it comes to bowl-game access along a with a national-title friendly schedule. But it also might blow up in their face. It is Penn State with something to lose, not the Big Ten.
In an ideal world, Penn State would persuade Notre Dame to join them in Big East football, and the move could work out. But that's a subject for another time. As to the current subject, let Lion fans be aware that we don't live an ideal world--and there's nothing wrong with shooting for a Big Ten crown as a legitimate secondary objective, while they continue to try and rebuild to glory.