For Joe Pa, It’s Not About Luck

In the wake of Jim Tressel’s resignation from Ohio State, many Penn State fans have found themselves feeling very fortunate that OSU quarterback Terrelle Pryor snubbed his home state team three years ago to go play for the Buckeyes (an opinion summarized here).

Pryor, a life-long PSU fan and one of the most highly-touted recruits in recent memory as a prep star at Jeannette High in Western PA, became the poster boy for the “Joe Must Go” crowd when he escaped from the Lions’ backyard and signed with their most hated (and succesful) rival.  “He’s too old to recruit with the best”, they cried.  “He’s out of touch; young kids can’t relate to him”, or “Our offense is too old-school; the top offensive players won’t come play here.”

Well, now that Pryor appears to be one of the main perpetrators of a scandal that has cost Tressel his job, has inflicted serious damage to the reputation of the OSU program and university, and will most likely have serious long-term consequences in terms of NCAA punishment, PSU fans can’t be blamed for feeling lucky that Pryor didn’t wreak his havoc in Happy Valley.  But here’s the truth of the matter that Joe Pa is too good of a guy to say for himself: it ain’t luck.

Yes, by all accounts, Joe and his coaching staff badly wanted Pryor to come play for them.  Why wouldn’t they?  He was a supreme talent with little to no off-the-field baggage.  He volunteered at a service organization in high school, got good grades, and was voted class president as a senior.  PSU was on him hard from the beginning of his recruitment until the day he committed to the Buckeyes.

But, it is not at all safe to assume that Pryor would have acted in a similar fashion at PSU as he has at OSU.  Yes, Penn State football players have had plenty of run-ins with law enforcement over the past decade or so, like just about all programs.  But, PSU is one of only TWO BCS programs (Stanford is the other) that has never committed a single NCAA infraction.  If you don’t think that has a TON to do with the man that has run the program for nearly the past half-century, you’re crazy.

College football has become a billion-dollar business and an obsession across large swaths of the country, so no coach can completely micromanage every aspect of their program and know exactly what all their assistant coaches, players, and anyone with access to those coaches and players, are doing behind the scenes.  But the head coach sets the tone, makes the decisions on who to trust for his coaching staff, and makes sure his players know what is expected of them and what the consequences are for missteps.  Jim Tressel clearly failed at this.

This is just speculation, but surely Pryor had conversations with players and alumni at both PSU and OSU before making his decision.  If he is the kind of guy that is looking for “something extra”, to go along with his scholarship (which it certainly seems like he is), it’s not far-fetched to imagine that he got the impression that things like cheap (or free?) cars and tattoos were more likely to come his way in Columbus than in State College.

I’ll leave the moralizing on the state of collegiate athletics to someone else.  I’m also not here to trumpet the wholesomeness and character-building accomplishments of Paterno.  I think he does deserve a ton of admiration for being the quality person that he is, but there are certainly other coaches in major athletics that are his equal in terms of character and ethics.  But, how many of them have won as much as he has?

In the end, the Ohio St.-Tressel-Pryor fiasco should serve to shed a light on how smart and capable Joe Pa is.  Everyone would agree that head coach of a BCS conference football team is an incredibly difficult job.  In order to do it for a long period of time, you have to win and you have to do it the right way.  Slip up, and you’re out.  And that means being accountable for the actions of dozens of young men, a large coaching staff, and other hangers-on.  Bobby Bowden and Rich Rodriguez couldn’t keep winning.  Pete Carroll and Jim Tressel couldn’t keep clean.  Joe Paterno has been smart enough to figure out how to do both, he’s done it better than anyone, and that’s why he sits atop them all with 401 career wins.  Luck’s got nothing to do with it.