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Penn State’s sad season has sad end

January 3, 2012

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A season of tragedy and upheaval finally came to an end for Penn State football Monday in a third-rate bowl game played in a half-empty stadium that also has seen much better days.

There wasn’t much of a final reward for the Nittany Lions players who endured the fallout from the Jerry Sandusky scandal this season. They very nearly voted to turn down this invitation from the TicketCity Bowl after being bypassed by several bowls further up the pecking order. The better bowls with Big Ten Conference affiliation thought Penn State’s distressing season would keep its normally loyal fans from traveling, and they apparently were right.

Penn State sold just 3,500 tickets, far short of the allotment it had to buy, and the majority of the 46,817 in the Cotton Bowl were those who made the trek up I-45 from Houston to watch their Cougars fling the ball around a few more times.

The players decided that not playing was the wrong message, even at the end of a season in which it has been difficult to know the right message. What they got for their trouble was a sound 30-14 beating in a game that was never in doubt. It could have been worse, and the Lions — maybe for the first time this season — were spared further embarrassment when Houston missed a couple of field goals and dropped at least two interceptions that would have gone for touchdowns. As it was, it was bad enough.

“All the things you can do to lose a game, we did them today,” interim head coach Tom Bradley said.

So that was how the 2011 season ended, as the minor-key prelude to a day on which five other bowl games, each more meaningful than this one, would be played. Penn State, which has known so many glorious January games, finished off the greatest era in its football history as a sideshow act that couldn’t draw a crowd.

All of it is prelude, of course, and when Penn State next plays it is possible that the entire coaching staff will have been replaced, that a new athletic director will be in power, and that the new university president will be delivering the results of the school’s internal investigation into what went wrong with the culture of the football program. You can toss in some NCAA sanctions as another possibility. All of that could happen before the start of the 2012 season, and, very probably, much of it will.

“I’m going to work until the very end, until they tell me my services are no longer needed,” Bradley said. “(Acting athletic director Dave) Joyner’s committee is going to make this decision. I don’t have a date when it’s going to be. He hasn’t set a time frame for exactly when that’s going to happen.”

Joyner originally hoped to have a new coach in place before the bowl game, but something has slowed the process. Including Bradley and assistants Jay Paterno and Larry Johnson — none of whom seems a likely candidate if the program is to be swept clean — there are a dozen rumored replacements for Joe Paterno, who was fired soon after the scandal broke.

The hot names this week are New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien and San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman, but there are plenty of other names out there. Eventually, someone will get the job, although delaying much longer will have a terrible effect on recruiting.

Far down the list of disappointments this season, it bothered Paterno to go out with as poor a performance as quarterback Rob Bolden had against Houston. Bolden played only because starter Matt McGloin suffered a concussion in a locker-room scuffle with receiver Curtis Drake two weeks ago. Then Bolden himself was caught up in an incident that Bradley called a “prank gone awry” and the police called “retail theft.” It was just more noise in the chaotic soundtrack of a season best forgotten.

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