STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Bill O’Brien was right to add names to Penn State’s jerseys, and James Franklin was right to take them off.
Time and time again -- whether it was a Penn State alum, commit or player -- they all shared the same sentiment Thursday.
“When Bill O’Brien put the names on the jerseys, it represented those guys who stayed and at that time I think it was very appropriate,” linebacker Jason Cabinda said. “But I think now that we’ve honored those guys and those guys are now almost out of the program … Now it’s time to get back to that traditional aspect of who we are.”
The excitement and reaction to uniforms might puzzle those outside of Happy Valley. But it’s a tradition here that means more than any other, more than the White Out, Lion Shrine or blue buses. It’s why Penn State great Troy Drayton said he just couldn’t watch a PSU game with jersey names. It’s why, according to Franklin, those uniforms were the topic most often broached by fans. You might just as easily paint Notre Dame’s golden helmets black.
“Let me first say I understand why Bill O’Brien did it; those gentlemen should be recognized,” said alum O.J. McDuffie, a former wideout for the Miami Dolphins. “But it’s always been tradition and we’ve always preached the same mantra -- it’s about Penn State and not about each individual.”
That no-name tradition was first instilled 22 years after the Civil War, in 1887, when players wore sweaters and went without helmets. It remained, from a 500-seat stadium in 1893 to 106,572 in 2011. It stayed, through guard Steve Suhey in the 1940s, his three letterman sons in the 1970s and his two letterman grandchildren in the 2000s. It endured through Joe Paterno’s 409 wins and 61 years on the sideline.
Those aren’t facts or numbers that immediately float to the top of every college athlete’s head. That’s why, when Franklin called a players meeting Thursday morning, his news wasn’t met with applause or whistling. Players, Cabinda said, were stunned. Some weren’t happy.
Then the alumni spoke. Then, Cabinda said, players realized: “We want exactly what they had.”
Added assistant coach/PSU alum Terry Smith: “When you’re a young guy when you’re on a team, you don’t realize history as much. You don’t realize until you’re removed from the program some years and you come back and you’re older and a little bit more mature. I can’t tell you how many text messages and phone calls I’ve gotten today.”
No Penn State coach has ever taken on a more difficult task than O’Brien. Some still questioned adding the jersey names, but many understood he was trying to forge an identity separate from the sanctions. PSU was tainted by Jerry Sandusky, the program was on the brink of ruin. As O’Brien put it, “We want our fans to know and recognize these young men.”
Three years later, times have changed at Penn State. Those leaders have become household names in Centre County, the sanctions have nearly become a distant memory, and the coaching staff finally feels stable. O’Brien added names to the jerseys to create something new. In a way, Franklin took them away to create something new himself -- something that communicated PSU can still embrace part of its past without a sense of guilt. Franklin went so far as to call this “another step in the healing process.”
It’s only a jersey. But, for a lot of players and alumni, it’s a whole lot more.
“The message today is we’re all unified again,” Smith said. “We’re all one, and we all understand it.”