TCFA

Posted Jan. 8, 2015

Oct 14, 2011

Urban Meyer and the Suddenly Expanded College Football Universe

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I first heard the news while trapped in a horrific traffic jam.

After three hours of mostly blissful and relatively stress-free travel from suburban Philadelphia up to Happy Valley last Friday, our luck ran out when we found ourselves at a dead stop, all of a sudden and without explanation, on the two-lane "highway" that is Route 322. We were 5 miles outside of State College. It may as well have been 500 miles.

I have made that drive—from Philly to Happy Valley—approximately 5,000 times, and during those approximately 5,000 trips, I have experienced a traffic disaster at every pinch-point along the way: I've been stuck in Valley Forge and I've been stuck at Harrisburg East. I've been ground to a halt on I-83. I've been backed up at Fishing Creek. I've been stonewalled at the Lewistown Narrows.

But never in My Penn State Football Lifetime—I mean, not once—had I been stuck, even for a moment, on Route 322, just 5 miles outside of State College.

So when our swagger wagon ground to a halt on that otherwise happy Friday, I knew it was bad. I knew whatever was up around that bend (and the one after that, and the one after that) was going to be a massive goddamned headache. I knew we were stranded and screwed and plum out of luck. I knew Younger Joey would soon wake up from his previously traffic-friendly slumber, that Younger Joey would soon express his deep displeasure with the relatively static state of Route 322, and that those last 5 miles would be 5 of the longest miles of my entire life.

We were so close. And yet we were so far.

Imagine, then, my mood. "Frustrated" probably doesn’t paint the proper picture. "Pissed" gets a great deal closer.

Then I flipped on the radio.

***

Flashback to My Penn State-Specific State Of Mind at the precise moment that traffic ground to a halt 5 miles outside of State College: It had been so long since I actually believed Penn State could win a national title (and it is important to point out here that, yes, you play college football specifically to win the national title) that I don't think I had realized just how far my hopes had truly fallen, and how starkly those hopes contrasted with What They Once Were, in more ideal times.

I mean, I have certainly recognized the general joylessness of the program as currently constructed. I understand full well why some of my friends and family—loyal Penn Staters, all—have of late stopped caring as much, stopped worrying as much, stopped thrilling to wins as much and stopped grumbling about losses as much. I’ve understood this because I’ve experienced the very same thing, and there really is no mystery as to why: With lowered ambitions came lowered expectations.

All of us in Nittany Nation, you see, had at some point subconsciously agreed that "OK" was good enough, that an occasional Big Ten title run was good enough, that rarely if ever beating the big boys was good enough, that being an also-ran was good enough.

The gravity had gone out of it. The meaning was gone. The life-and-death-and-oh-my-God-this-game-means-everything feeling had long passed.

And we were OK with it.

But now?

Well, now that this news is out, now that everyone who was stuck in that traffic back-up 5 miles outsde of State College heard the same report that I heard, I hope that everyone in Nittany Nation is feeling precisely the way I feel about things. I hope that their reaction upon hearing this news was the same as my reaction. Because it was an important reaction, and a telling reaction, and completely justified reaction.

See, when, I heard that report—when I heard the "news" (yes, I use this term lightly) that Urban Meyer was talking to Penn State officials about replacing You Know Who—I was reminded, with a swift kick to my conscious mind, that The Current State of Things is not the way it needs to be. In that moment I realized that Penn State should aspire to more than What We Have Now. That Penn State has aspired to more What We Have Now. And that Penn State absolutely can achieve more than What We Have Now.

Provided, of course, that Penn State has the right coach.

***

I write this piece knowing full well that it is a relatively crass and unquestionably classless thing to do.

I understand full well that Joe Paterno is, indeed, still the head coach of the Nittany Lions, that those Nittany Lions are currently 5-1, that the players on that team today signed up specifically to play for Joe—to play for a legend, to extend this legacy, to give him one last crack at another national title.

I understand that we should not be talking about the next coach at Penn State, or speculating about who that next coach might be, or pining for the day when (and this sounds bad, too, I know) we've got a man in charge who is fully capable of being, you know, in charge.

This kind of speculation and conversation is, of course, unpleasant. And the biggest reason is this: Nobody wants to talk about What Comes Next, because of course there is the fear that when What Comes Next finally arrives, it will only arrive on the heels of something unfortunate happening to Joe—another health scare, or another injury on the sidelines, or something, you know, worse. And nobody wants that.

So, yeah, I get it. We shouldn’t talk about it. And I certainly shouldn’t write about it.

But here’s the thing: I am quite certain the bigwigs up at Penn State—the people who are ultimately going to be charged with the unpleasant task of replacing The Legend Himself—are talking about it. I'm sure they've talked internally and externally about What Comes Next. I'm sure they've talked about possible candidates, possible strategies, possible public relations campaigns.

And despite athletic director Tim Curley's adamant denials, I am quite certain that he has talked—perhaps in a strictly casual manner, but talked nonetheless—with Urban Meyer.

You know why I am quite certain of this?

Because he'd be absolutely crazy, or downright negligent, to have not talked with Urban Meyer.

***

Earlier this season, on the eve of Penn State's allegedly-big-but-not-really-big showdown against Alabama, I wrote a somewhat lengthy piece detailing the vast gulf that has opened up between the true elites of college football (Alabama being one) and Penn State (which was once elite, but now most certainly is not). In that piece, I wrote of the passion and fire and cunning and ruthlessness of one Nick Saban, one of the greatest coaches of Our Modern Era, a man who inherited an Alabama program in tatters and turned it into nothing short of a dynasty.

Saban’s record at 'Bama? It is this: 49-11. One SEC championships. One national championship.

Before Saban'a arrival? Well, 'Bama was this: A mess. An also-ran. An afterthought.

Alabama had the facilities. It had the recruiting base. It had the fans, the money, the reach, the brand. It had everything except … the coach. Then Alabama got the coach. And in very short order, Alabama was Alabama again.

So, in a world where even Einstein's theories have been called into question, let me make this college football-specific issue very simple for you. Let me give you The Equation For College Football Success. That equation is as follows.

Great coach who will do anything and everything to destroy his opponents + Massive program with endless resources = Success.

Which brings us back to Urban Meyer (career record: 104-23, two national titles, four conference titles), and to Penn State (current advantages: facilities, recruiting base, fans, money, reach and brand; current liability: coach), and to that little moment I had there, trapped in my swagger wagon with the family and a whole bunch of other folks not moving but an inch or two per minute on the last lonely stretch of Route 322, just 5 miles outside of State College.

I say this in all honesty and with no exaggeration in the least: When that news came across the radio, when the first inkling of the very first notion of the very first idea of Urban Freaking Meyer to Penn Freaking State fired the synapses of My College Football Mind, it felt like nothing less than a bolt of lightning.

It was an awakening.

It was an epiphany.

It was a true and honest Moment of Realization.

It was a moment in which the very boundaries of My College Football Universe were expanded, all in an instant, and a moment when I could see, for the first time in a long time, that there would be A Coach After Joe. That there would be A Program After Joe. That there would be a Penn State After Joe.

And that, yes, that Penn State might indeed be a better Penn State.

A more successful Penn State.

A truly elite Penn State.

A Penn State that once was, and a Penn State that can be again.

If only the right guy gets the chance to run the show.

miscellany:notes from the college football fringes

♦ Arizona coach Mike Stoops was fired this week after led his team to a torrid 1-5 start that included losses to a bad USC team and a flat-out awful Oregon State team. Arizona has been pitiful this season, without question, and Stoops didn't help his cause by often acting like a buffoon on the sidelines. But here's what I don't get: Why fire him now? What does it accomplish, other than making a bunch of grumpy fans feel (temporarily) better about things? I may be old-fashioned, and I may be naive (certainly, athletic director Greg Byrne made this move now as a means to send the signal to top candidates that Arizona is indeed looking for The Next Guy), but I've always felt that the guy who starts the season should finish the season. And beyond that: Let's face it. You're Arizona. Failure comes along with the territory.

♦ One more thing on Arizona and its far-too-ambitious plans for The Next Guy: Stoops was making little more than $1 million per year. That ain't good enough.

♦ Oh, one more thing on Arizona and its far-too-ambitious plans for The Next Guy: If Byrne doesn't at least bring in Mike Leach for an interview, then he's an idiot.

♦ For all the failings of the Penn State program (Hint: OFFENSE), there remains Tom Bradley, there remains Larry Johnson Sr., and there remains Ron Vanderlinden. In other words, there remains one of the most consistently dominant defensive units in all of college football. This season, despite the fact that they are playing without their best defensive back (corner D'Anton Lynn) and their best overall player (linebacker Mike Mauti), the Nits currently rank in the top five nationally in scoring defense, total defense, pass defense and pass-efficiency defense. VIVA TOM BRADLEY.

♦ The Right Reverend Houston Nutt is officially on the proverbial hot seat. Which is why, I suppose, that he spent part of his news conference this week looking back on Happier Times—and his Rebs' stunning upset of No. 1 Florida back in 2008. Recalled Nutt: “We had just gotten beat by Vanderbilt. Everybody was a little bit down. Came in there Sunday and basically, said, ‘Look, get your head up. I’m gonna show you seven plays when 11 people do it the right way what can happen. And I’m gonna show you eight plays or nine plays of when you do it the wrong way what can happen. It takes 11 on every snap.’ So basically, you just try to set a standard of: ‘I need 11 guys. Everybody’s got a job to do, play every play as hard as you can, take care of the ball and eliminate turnovers and penalties and those things.’ That was kind of our mindset. We were about a 35-point underdog to (Tim) Tebow and those guys. We wasn’t thinking about upsetting or talking along those lines. We were talking on the lines of ‘Hey, let’s get better because we’ve got a chance to have a good football team.’ Then, all of a sudden you look up in the fourth quarter and we’re right there. And we just took off from there, just took off. Started believing. When you believe like that going against a powerful team and you get to that fourth quarter, that’s when you can achieve some things.” For some reason I found that interesting.

♦ So the NCAA has cleared Auburn of any wrongdoing in the Cam Newton case. My reaction: Don't care. Moving on.

♦ I'm sure you all watch Illinois football, like, every single week, so I'm sure you know everything there is to know about Illini wideout A.J. Jenkins—the fact that he has 46 catches on the year (most in Jim Delany's Big Ten, by the way), the fact that he's got seven touchdowns, the fact that he's already racked up 815 yards on the season, the fact that he is, without question, one of the best wideouts The Great Midwest. But you know who doesn't know any of that? Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby, who told The Entire World this week that while Jenkins is indeed "decent," he is ultimately "nothing special, really." This statement is especially entertaining given that it came a few days after Roby and his Buckeye defensive teammates were solely responsible for the most spectacular collapse in Ohio State history.

♦ Looking for this week's TCFA Podcast, in which Mike and I chat about Urban Meyer, a potential BCS disaster, and the calamity that was my Hey Watch Out For This Game Of The Week last weekend? Well, click here.

♦ Looking for picks? Well, click here.

♦ Love the column? Love the podcast? Despise all of the Penn State talk? Let us know by writing us at youreditor@intelligentcollegefootball.com or podcasts@intelligentcollegefootball.com

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