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Monday, January 23, 2012
Penn State football narrative will change

By Adam Rittenberg

Shortly before kickoff at Ohio Stadium, several other reporters and I left our seats in the press box and took positions in the hallway outside the press elevator.

Two top 10 teams with storied histories would play that October night in 2008: No. 3 Penn State and No. 9 Ohio State. The game eventually would decide the Big Ten's BCS bowl tiebreaker and a trip to the Rose Bowl. Penn State came in undefeated and needing four more victories to likely secure a spot in the national title game. Ohio State had only one loss and eyed a third consecutive outright Big Ten championship. The game featured two consensus All-Americans, three national award winners and 12 players who would be selected in the NFL draft the following April.

Joe Paterno
With the passing of Joe Paterno, the focus at Penn State will move from the sideline to the field.
But rather than watch pregame warm-ups, several national and local media members, along with an ABC cameraman, watched an 81-year-old man on crutches hobble off the elevator, down the hallway and into the visiting coaches' booth.

Joe Paterno seemed surprised to see us, saying, "Geez, what is this?" Assistant Ron Vanderlinden joked to the coach, "They're not waiting for us, right?"

Not you, Ron. Joe.

Paterno's game location (press box or field) became as big a story on fall Saturdays as Penn State's pass rush or quarterback play during the coach's last few seasons. As various ailments forced Paterno to the coaches' booth, the familiar questions surfaced about how much he really coached the team, whether he had any role with in-game planning and, the big one, whether all of this was a precursor to retirement.

Although Paterno's coaching future dominated the discourse around Penn State football, Paterno also made news in other ways. He called for the Big Ten to expand and add a championship game (which it did). He gave candid thoughts about major college football issues that resonated nationally. He made fun of Twitter and then started Skyping with recruits. His Tuesday press gatherings during the season were events, and he was the star.

Paterno might have been genuinely surprised to see us that night in Columbus, but he shouldn't have been. When it came to Penn State, he was the story, even if he didn't want to be.

The Joe Paterno narrative has been much bigger than the Penn State football narrative.

It might not have been that way at the start of Paterno's 46-year run as Lions coach, but it was for most of his tenure. It certainly has been the case since the Big Ten blog launched in 2008. While the blog technically covers 12 teams, it really has covered 11 teams and one coach.

Penn State has had great teams and great players that moved the needle nationally. But Paterno was the constant. He was the newsmaker.

The narrative will change at Penn State following Paterno's death Sunday at age 85. Make no mistake, Paterno's presence will remain with the team, the university and the fans. Penn State will pay tribute to Paterno in the coming days, during the coming season and in ways that will remain with the program forever. He built Penn State football, and his imprint will never be removed from the program.

But at some point, Penn State football will be the story and Joe Paterno will not. It's going to seem odd.

There likely won't be many columns about whether new Penn State coach Bill O'Brien, 42, will coach from the field or the press box. O'Brien's potential retirement won't be discussed nearly as much as whether he can be an effective head coach for a program dealing with a turbulent time. His ability to develop quarterbacks is sure to generate more copy than his thoughts on conference realignment or whether freshmen should be eligible.

The Penn State players themselves also will be bigger parts of the narrative. Paterno was known for being insular with the program and sheltering his players, restricting access to both media members and NFL scouts. While stars like former linebacker LaVar Arrington drew some national attention, Penn State seems to have far fewer players in the spotlight than most programs of its ilk. I've sometimes wondered whether the closed-door policy has hurt Penn State players when it comes to national awards -- the program has produced only one Heisman Trophy winner, John Cappelletti in 1973.

Will things change under O'Brien? Time will tell, but it would be surprising not to hear more and see more from Penn State's players in coming years.

As the tributes roll in, Paterno is the story at Penn State. He'll be mourned and remembered throughout the week. But at some point -- maybe the start of spring practice or the start of the 2013 season -- the narrative will shift.

There won't be an iconic figure on the sideline, at the podium or in the coaches' booth. There will be players and coaches, trying to uphold a legacy and forge their own.

It will become all about the team.

Paterno would like that.