Bill O'Brien Leaves
It did not take long for the first major news story to hit the Penn State football program in 2014. In fact, it actually broke on the last day of 2013, as multiple media outlets reported that second-year Nittany Lion coach Bill O'Brien was leaving PSU to become head coach of the NFL's Houston Texans.
By New Year's Day, it was obvious that the reports were accurate.
After having to deal with one head-coaching search between 1951 and 2011, the PSU administration found itself going through the process for the second time in three years.
Athletic director Dave Joyner (below) promised to fill the position quickly and with a top candidate. With Signing Day for the recruits about a month away, doing just that was vital.
But would the university really be able to pull it off?
James Franklin Is Hired
As it turned out, yes.
PSU identified and landed one of the hottest young coaches in the nation on very short notice. Pennsylvania native James Franklin experienced unprecedented success in three years at Vanderbilt, and was now bringing his act -- and most of his staff -- to Happy Valley.
With an extremely outgoing personality, he easily won his first press conference as coach of the Lions (and pretty much all of them after that). But did the longtime college and pro assistant (before landing at Vandy) have the chops to handle a head-coaching job at this level?
Franklin Saves, Adds To Recruiting Class
As it turned out, yes, at least when it came to recruiting.
Franklin began recruiting for Penn State the day he was hired. Not only did he manage to hold on to most of O'Brien's commitments, but he also quickly began to add to the class.
Franklin and his staff flipped commitments from Vanderbilt and other schools. Showing a collective work ethic on the recruiting trail not seen for ages in these parts, the Lions ended up landing the third-best class in the Big Ten and 25th-ranked class in the nation.
Franklin also made Signing Day an event, inviting reporters to the PSU War Room as Letters of Intent were coming in and staging The Signature Event celebration for fans at the Jordan Center later in the day (with Lion legends LaVar Arrington and Michael Mauti as part of the show).
It was a sign of even better things to come. Franklin and company are on track to land a top-10 class in 2015 and already have three young standouts committed for the Class of 2016.
Eric Barron Is Hired As Prez
When the Sandusky scandal broke in November of 2011, Penn State was essentially left with interim leadership at president (even though the term interim was quickly removed from Rodney Erickson's title when he was promoted from vice-prez and provost to prez that month). Everyone knew Erickson was not the long-term answer as the replacement for the deposed Graham Spanier, and Erickson affirmed this in early 2012 when he announced he would step down when his contract was up in 2014.
But what sort of president would the university get to replace him? Would it bow to critics who claimed PSU had a football-first culture and hire someone who would de-emphasize the sport?
After watching Erickson and university leadership roll over and accept unprecedented harsh sanctions against the football program (based on what were later learned to be bluff tactics by the NCAA), nobody knew what to expect.
The answer came in mid-February of this year, when Penn State announced that Barron would become the new school president May 12. PSU hired him away from Florida State, which, after winning the 2013 national championship, obviously was a school that understood the value of a strong football program (more on this later). Barron also had roots in Happy Valley, having once served as a dean at Penn State.
Barron has since showed that he is behind the common-sense (and needed) reforms at Penn State that arose from the Sandusky scandal, yet sensitive to the fact that tearing down the football program would do significantly more harm than good to the athletic department, university and the State College community.
And speaking of common sense, he has also agreed to review the results of the allegedly independent Freeh Report, which served as the basis of the NCAA's decision to severely sanction Penn State in July of 2012. Penn State accepted the findings of the Freeh Report the day it was released, even though it was never fully reviewed by the school's Board of Trustees.
Sandy Barbour Is Hired As AD
Like Erickson, Joyner was in an interim position, even though that part of his title did not last very long. After replacing the deposed Tim Curley as athletic director in November of 2011, the longtime university trustee and former orthopedic surgeon clearly did not appear to be the long-term answer at the position. And sure enough, once Barron came on board, it took about a month for Joyner to announce he was resigning.
Penn State held a national search for an AD and ultimately settled on Barbour, which was a curious decision to some. After all, she was effectively fired after 10 years at Cal, and was contemplating her future when PSU came calling. The Bear athletic department was in a financial hole when Barbour left, and had actually decided to cut several non-revenue varsity sports a few years ago (before alumni rallied to save them).
What she did bring was perspective. As we've since learned, Barbour knows that the key to sustaining a broad-based varsity athletic department -- and giving hundreds of men and women per year the chance to compete at the top level of college sports and get an education via scholarship -- is a revenue-producing program that covers most of the cost for it all.
Cal did not have that, and when the state significantly cut back on funding to its universities, a lot of athletic departments were in trouble.
At Penn State, THE moneymaker is football. Until the sanctions hit, the school's entire athletic department was self-supporting, owing primarily to the revenue produced by the football program. So anyone calling for the demise of the football program in the wake of the Sandusky scandal might as well have been calling for PSU to stop fielding all of its revenue-losing sports, which include everything except football, money-making men's basketball, and the completely endowed hockey programs.
Barbour insists that, after dipping into university reserve funds since the sanctions hit (and cut into football revenue), the PSU athletic department is on track to be self-sustaining again and no varsity programs will be cut.
Lions Beat UCF In Dublin
As much of a splash as Franklin made when he was hired -- while recruiting, while pimping the program on an extended promotional tour, and in everything else he did leading up to the 2014 season -- everyone was anxious to see how he operated while actually coaching in a game.
It finally happened when PSU traveled to Ireland to face UCF in the Croke Park Classic. The game was the brainchild of O'Brien, who, after the Lions were slapped with a four-year bowl ban, wanted to find a way for his team to enjoy a bowl-like experience.
By the time the Lions traveled to Dublin, Franklin had a good idea the bowl ban would probably be lifted. So he was admittedly not enamored of the idea of starting the season so far from home and then having to face Akron at Beaver Stadium six days after getting back.
But Penn State fans showed up for the contest en masse, proving they were willing to go anywhere to support their team. And the game, while not particularly well-played on either side, turned out to be a thriller, setting a tone for a season full of close ones.
The Lions won it on a 36-yard Sam Ficken field goal as time expired, setting off a celebration that saw the new head coach bear hug the once-beleaguered kicker (more on this later).
Most NCAA Sanctions Are Lifted
In September of 2013, the NCAA dialed back some of the sanctions it imposed on Penn State stemming from the Sandusky scandal, citing the progress the university made toward meeting the recommendations of the Freeh Report. Less than a year later, all of the scholarships (moving forward) and postseason penalties were lifted for the same reason.
Via Twitter, the NCAA said:
Due to Penn State University's significant progress toward ensuring its athletics department functions with integrity, the NCAA Executive Committee today eliminated the school's postseason ban, effective immediately, and will return the full complement of football scholarships in 2015-16.
Did anything else come into play here? Like the NCAA trying to wriggle out of some of the lawsuits filed against it? Or the NCAA realizing folks would soon learn that it bluffed PSU into accepting the harsh sanctions with the apparently empty threat of the so-called death penalty for the football program?
We'll probably never know for sure, since nobody from the NCAA seems all that interested in coming clean anywhere other than in internal e-mails.
But for the Penn State football program, which did not fall nearly as far as anyone expected while the sanctions were in place, the road back to serious relevancy on the national stage became that much shorter.
State Pushes Buckeyes To Double OT
Yeah, we know, there are no such things are moral victories. Blah, blah, blah.
Penn State did not beat eventual College Football Playoff participant Ohio State at Beaver Stadium Oct. 25. But the thrilling double-overtime affair showed that the program, even after dealing with the difficult sanctions, may be closer to regaining its national power status than most imagined.
The Lions fell behind 17-0 at the half (thanks in part to a faulty replay setup by the Big Ten referees), then held the Buckeyes' high-powered offense scoreless in the second stanza while tying the game late in regulation. A jam-packed Whiteout crowd played a part, and reminded everyone that Beaver Stadium can still provide one of the (if not THE) best game-day atmospheres in the nation.
OSU won 31-24 in double OT, with two more dicey decisions by the officials (at least in the minds of PSU fans) playing a part. But that was almost beside the point.
The bottom line was that Ohio State crushed the Lions 63-14 in Columbus a year earlier, and many fans and even former players were simply hoping the Lions would not be embarrassed again.
So given the circumstances, yes, there are such things are moral victories. And this was one of them.
Check out our Frame Game breakdown of a key play in the game.
PSU Reaches Bowl Eligibility
Having the ability to qualify for a bowl was one thing. Being able to actually do it while still feeling the brunt of the original sanctions was quite another. After starting the season 4-0, the Lions' lack of talent and depth on the offensive line, and lack of depth overall, began to be an issue. They dropped four straight before eking out a 13-7 victory at Indiana Nov. 8.
Then Temple arrived at Beaver Stadium. And though the Owls have shown signs of improvement under PSU grad Matt Rhule, they had not beaten the Lions since 1941 (losing 37 and tying one since then).
After a lackluster first half, Penn State dominated the second stanza for a relatively easy 30-13 victory that assured a .500 regular-season record and effectively locked up a bowl bid.
Veteran players who thought they would never have a chance to play in another bowl now had the opportunity to do so again. And athletes who signed with PSU after the sanctions hit believing they might have a chance to play in a bowl later in their careers were now going bowling earlier than they could have hoped.
Lions Top BC in Pinstripe Bowl
Reaching a bowl is one thing. Winning one is quite another, especially after closing the regular season with consecutive losses and six defeats in the final eight games.
When talking about this game, try flipping the script, and imagine where Penn State would be right now had it lost to Boston College. Three straight losses to end the season. Defeats in seven of the last nine games. Three straight bowl losses.
Instead, the Nittany Lions won in thrilling fashion and in a showdown that was really about redemption on so many levels.
In the game itself, PSU fell behind 21-7 in the third quarter before rallying to win 31-30 in overtime. For the team, as noted, the Lions struggled late in the year but turned it around in the bowl.
Then there were the individuals.
QB Christian Hackenberg, WR Geno Lewis, TE Kyle Carter and, of course, every member of the offensive line were lambasted at some point of the regular season for struggling. Yet all came through in the clutch vs. BC.
Then you had Ficken, who may have had the greatest turnaround in program history. Fans destroyed him when he struggled during a difficult sophomore season, yet he never got down on himself. And it all paid off during his senior campaign, when he was beyond clutch.
Ficken forced the Pinstripe Bowl into OT with a 45-yard field goal. Then he won it with, of all things, an extra point. It was the final play of his career, and Ficken (below) rightly noted he could not have scripted it much better.
It was also the Penn State football team's final newsworthy moment of 2014.
At least those of us hoping to enjoy a normal New Year's Eve hope so. ;)