When we meet the Grinch in the Christmas classic, “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas“, he is high in his lofty perch above Whoville. His heart, four sizes too small, is shrunken beneath his green furry skin. He gets an idea. “I must stop Christmas from coming.” So with the help of his faithful lapdog Max, he rushes down the hill on his sled with a plan to destroy the joyful celebrations in Whoville.
I put to you that NCAA president Mark Emmert sat in his lofty offices in Indianapolis and looked down at the devastation in Nittanyville from the J.S. arrest and scandal. Paterno was dead. Spanier was fired. Curley and Schultz were charged with perjury. There would be trials and lawsuits to come.
But Penn State had hired a new exciting coach named Bill O’Brien. Emmert must have thought, “I must stop Penn State football and its fans from coming back to Beaver Stadium.” So he and his faithful lapdog, Ed Ray, chairman of the NCAA executive committee and Oregon State president, sought to keep wins from coming to Happy Valley. So they hastily zoomed down to a podium to announce crippling sanctions that would devastate Nittanyville.
You see he thought Penn State football was about its long-revered coach. He thought it was about the winning seasons. He thought it was about the expansive tailgating surrounding one of the largest college football stadiums in the country. He thought it was about the apparel and the stores. He thought it was about the decorations and flags. If he could hand down sanctions devastating enough, he could make all of that football culture go away.
Penn State football wasn’t about all of that. The NCAA Grinch thought if he got some of the players to leave, it would stop them. Penn State football wasn’t about those who left but those who chose to stay. The players who stayed stepped up with hearts and hard work to take the places of those who left setting records in their wake. The NCAA Grinch thought if he took scholarships away for four years that would stop them from bringing enough talent to Penn State to play. Coach O’Brien already has a team with numbers close to the cut off for this year. The NCAA Grinch thought that the four year bowl ban would keep away recruits. Penn State’s recruiting class ranks in the top 25 of one scouting site. The promise of reduced scholarships means those talented players will have a chance to play right away. He thought that taking $60 million in fines would help further the educational purpose of the university. Oh, that’s right. It doesn’t. That’s a fairytale.
But on Saturday night, amid the swirling snow, Christmas came early to Nittanyville. A courageous team wearing number 42 on their helmets and belief in their hearts fought against all of the adversity they had faced this season. Led by a group of seniors who held the team together, they were honored with their number, 2012, painted in the stadium’s ring of honor. It wasn’t for a championship, it wasn’t for an undefeated season, no, it was because they were not defeated by the rancor of the NCAA and the rest of the world. It took overtime to take care of the possible Big Ten champions, Wisconsin, but they did it.
In front of 93,000 faithful supporters, this team celebrated something that was bigger than a bowl game. The NCAA Grinch sought to take away something he didn’t understand. He thought it was about a coach. He thought it was about winning seasons and bowl games. He thought it was about the tailgating, the apparel, the decorations, and the even the fans in the stadium. But it was not. It was about a group of young men and their leaders who believed in them sticking together in the face of adversity. It was overcoming obstacles one week and one game at a time. It was about playing for something bigger than themselves. They stayed and played for the man standing next to them. It was about honoring a university that had given them an opportunity and an education.
After their triumph, they stood arm-in-arm in front of the Blue Band, much like the Whos in Whoville, who joined together around the tree on Christmas morning. As they swayed together they sang in unison words that have a newfound meaning,
“May no act of ours bring shame, to one heart that loves thy name.
May our lives but swell thy fame, Dear Old State, Dear Old State.”
Instead of the bells of Christmas, those who stayed and watched heard the loud dongs of the Victory Bell and the dawning of a new era in Penn State football. An era began that was forged from the bonds of a group of young men of character whose spirit will stay with us in Nittanyville forever. It is this legacy that will draw recruits and run-ons much like the lore of the roundtable brought knights to Camelot. I hope that the NCAA Grinch was watching on television. I hope his heart grew two sizes Saturday night. And NCAA’s Max? I hope he never has to pull the Grinch’s sled again