Mythbusters: Penn State/State Pen

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All year, America's clamored for the Big Ten's return to the national title game, and with its big win over Ohio State, Penn State's trying hard to oblige.

But before we start burning any more cars or getting too nostalgic about old JoePa possibly getting one last shot at a championship, it's time to address a myth surrounding this Nittany Lions team.

It's only natural media and fans are drawn to Penn State. The Lions have always been among college football's elite thanks to a great coach, great fans, a great stadium and great classic unis (they're the only ones who can truly get away with wearing white after Labor Day). Even their hometown, State College, sounds old school and dignified.

After falling on hard times earlier this decade, the Lions have clawed their way back to the top. It helps that they have one of the sport's true icons roaming the sidelines. Sure, Joe Paterno doesn't really roam anymore. And he's not even on the sidelines. But you know what we mean.

Everyone seems thrilled by the prospect of Paterno getting another crack at the Big One. The guy's led his team to four unbeaten seasons that didn't end up with a national championship, after all. In 1973, Paterno's Lions went 12-0 and finished fifth. The jeweler who made Auburn's 2004 "National Champions" rings could have retired early if he'd had JoePa as a client.

But while many folks are happy that Happy Valley's happy, this isn't quite the made-for-Disney story it seems. Nine straight wins have made many forget that just before the season, this program's off-the-field transgressions were allegedly bad enough to warrant an ESPN Outside the Lines report -- a report which fueled cries for Paterno's retirement.

Penn State's legal problems lit up Internet message boards (not to mention the police dispatcher boards in State College). According to the ESPN report (which quoted some wacky fly-by-night source called "Pennsylvania Criminal Records"), 46 current or former Penn State players have been charged with crimes on 163 counts in the past six seasons. Forty-five of those 163 resulted in guilty pleas or convictions and 27 of the 46 players charged were found guilty of at least one count each. That might be the equivalent of a regular long weekend for Adam "Pacman" Jones, but for a proud program like Penn State it's downright shocking.

Forty-six arrests in six seasons. If our math serves us correctly, that's an average of over seven per year. The Cincinnati Bengals had one year like that and they've been an NFL punchline ever since.

Paterno responded to that ESPN report by saying, "When you say 46, or whatever your numbers are, I think you've done an awful lot of probing. It bothers me, that you might be on a witch hunt." Considering he's old enough to remember what went down in Salem, you have to take him seriously.

But perhaps most offensively, the school whose motto is "Success With Honor" has given people a reason to trot back out that old, tired "Penn State/State Pen" joke. And if there's anything the media love, it's an excuse to trot out old, tired jokes.

Of course, every college football fan has his or her own version of "The List" -- a complete (and often inaccurate) compendium of a rival school's rap sheet. Penn State is no different. And depending on which side you're on, you can make a case that either the numbers are inflated because high-profile football players are bigger media targets, or the numbers are only the tip of the iceberg because of the football program's ability to keep other incidents under wraps. But the fact that we're even discussing a JoePa program in this context is a sad turn of events.

And it gets worse, because the football team's on-the-field fortunes have improved just as the players have started re-enacting The Program off the field. PSU player arrests and football wins have followed a similar ascending arc and it would be hard to blame an outside observer for wondering if the program's compromised off the field to get back to winning on it. Granted, outside observers are often clueless idiots, but every now and then they get one right.

Now, we should probably give JoePa the benefit of the doubt, because if anyone's earned that, he has. During Paterno's watch, the Nittany Lions have produced 27 first-team academic All-Americas, 15 Hall of Fame scholar-athletes, 18 NCAA postgraduate scholarship winners and one of the highest graduation rates in I-A ... all while rocking those great aforementioned unis.

When Penn State's players showed up to a pre-Fiesta Bowl dinner in 1987 wearing jackets and ties while Miami's guys wore combat fatigues, it instantly became a classic "Good vs. Evil" sports moment. (In stark contrast to today, when guys in fatigues are generally considered heroes and guys in suits have to wear the villain label.) But if even half of those whopping arrest figures are legit, that's still too many for these guys. Penn State isn't supposed to resemble Barry Switzer's wild OU party boys or a program run amok like The U in the '80s. They're not even supposed to be like recent repeat offenders USC or Georgia. Few could have imagined a JoePa outfit going from Big Ten to Big Ten-to-life.

So did the Lions finally succumb and sacrifice discipline and integrity for football success? Nobody outside the program really knows, but the perception of Penn State football is no longer as lily white as its helmets. And for a program that has always represented most of what's good about college football, that's a step backward ... whether the Lions end up playing for the national title or not.

It's not that they're a bad story, they're just no better a story than Texas or Alabama. They appear to be a football-first factory like everybody else and no matter how many times Paterno has his players clean Beaver Stadium, they won't be able to scrub that away.

That's all for this week. Remember: Just because college football fans believe it's true, doesn't mean it is.

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