By Bob Socci
It’s early morning in a place long called Happy Valley, a name that no longer seems appropriate, and hasn’t since last November. We’re eight hours away from a game I once looked forward to as much as any other in my many years -- this is my 16th -- calling Navy football.
As the youngest child of an Italian-American son of the Depression, one of the best ways -- perhaps the only way -- to bridge the vast generation gap with my dad was by watching and talking sports together. My father’s rooting interests always reflected his roots. And mine.
He’d grown up in a time and place, when and where most of the neighborhood kids had names like his. Let’s just say he wasn’t the only Anthony on the block, and just about everyone’s surname ended in a vowel. Back when baseball truly was our national pastime, the Yankees were their undisputed champion. Not because they won all the time, but because they did it with stars like Berra, Crosetti, Lazzeri, Rizzuto and, of course, DiMaggio.
By the time I came along, they were all gone from the game. Maybe that’s why I, in the wisdom of my youth and to my later chagrin, wound up a Mets fun.
In the fall, living in the Northeast when there were few games televised on college football Saturdays, there was one team we saw over and over. And, unlike baseball, one team we saw the same way: Penn State. Naturally.
The Nittany Lions were the old-school team -- even in those good old days -- with the plain old-school look, under the old-school coach Joe Paterno. Penn State football was Joe Pa, and Joe Pa was Penn State football. Of course, Joe Pa was a descendant of the Old Country.
More than that, he was a man of letters; a Brooklyn kid with an Ivy League education, who recited poetry and listened to opera and wore ties on the sidelines and graduated his players. And won lots of football games. Regardless of your heritage or mine, those were qualities to be admired.
I always did. More so, in fact, in the years after my father and I stopped watching games together. Even more when I got into the business of watching college athletics closely and became a skeptic of what I saw in most major sports programs. I wasn’t alone.
Oh sure, Paterno had his detractors; he had a lot I learned. But overall, he was as revered as, if not more than any other figure in college athletics for running a winning program the right way. He was an icon for ethics.
As we turned toward this century, my feelings were mostly unchanged. Though there were times I thought were right for Paterno to retire. Still, considering how much he’d done to help transform Penn State from a “cow college” to a Big Ten University, I figured he’d earned the right to stay in coaching as long as he’d like. I wrote as much, in a brief note in this very space, looking ahead to this very day, almost exactly a year ago.
How wrong I was. How different I see things today.
Yesterday, as I drove to State College, Penn State’s Board of Trustees were wrapping up two days of meetings. On the agenda in their first formal session since the NCAA severely sanctioned the school in July was a review of recommendations made by former FBI Director Louis Freeh.
The Freeh Report is an accounting of the failure of University officials, including Paterno, to stop a sexual predator in their midst. Jerry Sandusky, a Penn State assistant for 32 years, was convicted in June on 45 counts of sexual abuse of children over a 15-year period. The school’s former athletic director and a senior vice president await trial on charges of perjury and failing to report suspected child abuse.
On Nov. 9, both Paterno and University president Graham Spanier were fired. Ten weeks later, at age 85 and after 61 years as a Penn State coach, including 46 as head coach, Paterno died of lung cancer. In July, the morning before the NCAA fined Penn State $60 million and levied four years of penalties against the school, a 900-hundred pound statue of Paterno was removed from the sidewalk outside Beaver Stadium.
Within a couple of hours, I’ll be walking near that empty space as I enter the stadium, on the way to the visitor’s radio booth. I’ll probably still be wondering how to handle all that’s taken place in these parts the past 11 months on our broadcast.
There has to be some mention of the circumstances, particularly how they’ve impacted Penn State’s team. The Nittany Lions who confront the Midshipmen today have a new head coach, Bill O’Brien. More than a dozen ex-teammates have left the program since the NCAA announced its sanctions.
One of them is Silas Redd, a 1,000-yard rusher now at USC. No doubt, if still here he would have been a central part of Penn State’s game plan. Another is kicker Anthony Fera, who left for Texas. His successor Sam Ficken missed four field-goal tries, including a potential last-second game-winner, in last week’s loss at Virginia.
As much as I disdain any thought of discussing off-field issues in game broadcast, and as much as I -- like any other rational, feeling human being -- detest the unspeakable actions of Sandusky and inaction of others, there is great relevance to the game itself.
Still, the game itself is why we’re here.
It’s an extremely important game for both. While Penn State is 0-2, after relinquishing late leads in narrow losses to Ohio and Virginia, the Mids are two weeks removed from their disappointing opener in Dublin.
And much as they were in a 50-10 loss to Notre Dame, they’ll be outmanned in many respects by the Nittany Lions, however shorthanded. The Fighting Irish were dominant up front, on both sides of the ball. Linebacker Mantei Teo wreaked havoc with Navy’s option offense.
Well, Penn State wasn’t just synonymous with its longtime head coach; it’s long been referred to as Linebacker U. Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges are also among the nation’s best. The former is on the ‘watch list’ for the Butkus Award. The latter was first team All-Big Ten in 2011.
Opposite such a defense, and with quarterback Trey Miller still recouping from an ankle injury vs. Notre Dame, the Mids are trying to get their running game in gear. Granted, they abandoned the option early in Dublin, after falling into a big deficit (trailing 27-0). But with only 149 yards rushing, they averaged 3.7 yards per carry. Excluding the game’s final two plays, Navy averaged a mere 2.9 yards a rush in Ireland.
As head coach Ken Niumatalolo said this week, if the Mids rush for 149 yards again, they’ll lose by 40 again.
Defensively, Navy will contend with a style orchestrated by O’Brien, based largely on his most recent experience as offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots. That means plenty of formations and a lot of throws underneath the defense.
Quarterback Matt McGloin, a fifth-year senior and former walk-on, attempted a career-high 48 passes vs. Ohio. Allen Robinson leads the Big Ten and is seventh nationally with 19 receptions, averaging a shade below 10 yards a catch. The Nittany Lions also target their tight ends -- a lot. O’Brien no longer has New England’s Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez at his disposal, but he does have Kyle Carter. Carter has 10 receptions in two contests.
In other words, Penn State’s current players and coach provide enough to talk about in those few tight spaces that present themselves during the course of a radio broadcast.
So do the Mids, as you know.
For days, whenever asked about Navy’s next game and I’ve mentioned the words, “Penn State,” it’s induced the same response. “Oh, that will be interesting,” others have said, before I could fill in the pause that followed with the thought they were thinking.
Yes, it will be interesting. On many levels. For some very good reasons. And the very worst reasons.
About to stop writing and start talking, I’ll do my best to keep my eyes on the ball. Literally. I’ll also be mindful of Midshipmen like John Howell and Jake Zuzek, for whom this is a Pennsylvania homecoming of sorts. As it is for teammate Maika Polamalu, whose father was a national champion as a defensive tackle under Paterno in 1986.
I’ll also think of the victims of Sandusky and the others who allowed him to continue for years.
There’s a game to call. That I’ll do, to the best of my ability.
Irrespective of the past, if the Mids prevail, I’ll leave this valley happy.