By Kevin Horne & Chris Buchignani, March 2015
There are certain successes that everyone from the outside can predict. These are victories worthy of celebration, for sure, but movies aren’t made and books aren’t written about the events that everyone sees coming. The stories that inspire us the most and linger in our memories are often the ones that make the unexpected seem possible, the unbelievable a reality.
Such a story unfolded here in Happy Valley 10 years ago this fall, authored by Penn State’s football team.
The Nittany Lions were fresh off a 4-7 season, only their sixth losing record in 68 years, but — incredibly — the fourth in the last five. Few now remember how that team, which held every opponent to 21 or fewer points, featured probably one of the best defenses in program history, largely due to an offense everyone would rather forget. Despite that suffocating D, the 2004 Nittany Lions needed to win their final two games to finish with four wins, a one-game improvement over the previous, equally miserable, season’s output. Loyal fans and alumni had had enough.
At the center of this unrest was a 78-year-old head coach, ostensibly overstaying his welcome at the program he had built and brushing away pleas from even those within his inner circle to move aside. With calls for Joe Paterno’s dismissal or retirement reaching a deafening pitch, his fate appeared inevitable. The journey, as so often happens with legends in sport, was nearing an ignominious end. Except it wasn’t.
Penn Staters still talk about what happened next, one of the most improbable college football stories ever told. Behind unshakeable senior leaders and explosive freshmen playmakers, the Lions came charging back from the brink, completing a 12-1 season en route to an Orange Bowl win and top-three finish nationally. In one magical season, they rejuvenated an iconic program and an old coach who had been written off by the nation and captivated an entire community in the process. And no one saw it coming. Or did they?
Could that wily old coach have known what was to come? Could anyone? A review of Daily Collegian articles during the 2005 spring practice suggest that something special was brewing — just how special, only the players and coaches who lived it could have predicted. Nevertheless, a media narrative that had, in recent years, focused almost entirely on Paterno’s age and the dismal on-field results subtly began to shift.
The first ray of light to pierce the darkness clouding the program’s fortunes came in late 2004 when two gifted recruits — Justin King and Derrick Williams, the number-one prospect in America — announced their intent to play for Penn State and enroll early. With these surprising commitments, Joe Paterno’s insistence that his hapless squad was only a couple playmakers away from greatness — “I wouldn’t care if we didn’t get anybody else but those two kids,” he would say — could now be put to the test.
Maybe the arrival of King and Williams inspired new confidence. It could be that fresh memories of a supremely talented defense buoyed hopes. Perhaps it was merely the natural, if often irrational, optimism that accompanies every off-season. Suring the spring, the focus shifted from obsession with past failures to pondering the possibility for better days ahead. No one exuded confidence more than the players themselves.
Senior cornerback Alan Zemaitis, who toyed with the idea of entering the NFL draft after his junior season (it was the first year since 1951 that no Penn Stater was drafted to play in the NFL), knew there was something in the air that spring.
“The guys we have coming back, the kind of year I know we’re going to have,” Zemaitis said to the Collegian before the Blue-White Game, “I wasn’t ready to leave that.”
Zemaitis and his fellow senior, quarterback Michael Robinson, were integral to all of Penn State’s success that year, on and off the field. These two, along with so many other great senior leaders such as Tamba Hali, Matthew Rice, Calvin Lowry, and Chris Harrell, were joined by one throwback Steel City linebacker in their singular focus on returning glory to Old State.
“It’s a huge thing for us just because we know all the great guys who have come before us, and to not try our hardest would be a disservice to them,” linebacker Paul Posluszny said. “If we didn’t try to uphold that, then we would be stamping on the tradition that is Penn State.”
One month later, “Poz” would be elected the first junior captain at Penn State since the 1968 season, joining Robinson and Zemaitis. By seasons’s end, he was celebrated as one of the best linebackers in the country, winning the Butkus and Bednarik awards while earning Academic All-American status.
Even as dreams of speedy playmakers danced through fans’ heads, no one outside the program was quite sure how big of an immediate impact those highly touted freshmen could truly have on the beleaguered program: Despite Robinson moving full-time to quarterback for the first time in 2005, the Collegian called the wide receiver corps the team’s “biggest question mark” going into the season. The paper’s Friday primer before Blue-White weekend did note the emergence of unheralded redshirt freshman Deon Butler, a former walk-on brought over from the defensive side of the ball. The same article also tipped off fans to a “sleeper” — local product Jordan Norwood. Butler would go on to lead the ’05 team in touchdown receptions, and Norwood became Robinson’s clutch target down the stretch.
Before the annual scrimmage was called on account of lightning in the third quarter, Robinson had started answering questions about his own ability to command the offense and what role his new teammates would play in it. The first offensive snap of the game featured a 35-yard completion to a streaking Justin King; the very next saw Williams catch a short pass and juke his way to a nine-yard gain. Robinson called it “a statement.”
“It could be a glimpse of what might happen in the fall, I don’t know, but we have been working with him on both sides of the ball,” Robinson said of Williams. “He is such a gifted athlete that he is able to do both, so we just wanted to get the ball in his hands and let him run around a little bit.”
What happened in the fall was one of the great stories of the Nittany Valley, one worth remembering this month as we again celebrate a special spirit the 2005 Nittany Lions embodied like few others.