There's a peculiar pride in anonymity at Penn State.
Do something long enough and it becomes a tradition, a source of heritage. That's what happened with the Nittany Lions' football uniforms, which for more than a century were as basic as it gets, complete with no player names on the back.
The most tumultuous time in Penn State history led to a minor yet seismic change in those uniforms. In 2012, then-coach Bill O'Brien decided to add names to the back of the jerseys, a sign of support for those players who stuck around through the Sandusky scandal and resulting NCAA sanctions. It was a smart, classy move by O'Brien, who handled so many difficult things well during his short tenure in State College.
But tradition dies hard, especially at a place like Penn State. The names stayed on for the past three years, but many fans wished they'd disappear. And now, the program is going back to its old ways, as head coach James Franklin announced that the Nittany Lions would once again take the field as the no-name gang this season. The spartan style even lends a mantra to this season's team: "Black Shoes. Basic Blues. No Names. All Game.”
O'Brien's decision made perfect sense at the time, and forward-thinking Franklin is smart to embrace the past. We live in a me-first era when it's probably hard to convince some hot-shot recruits to come wear a jersey without their names on the back. Franklin knows this as well as anyone. But some traditions are too big to ignore.
"The 2012 team, permanently recognized in Beaver Stadium, will hold an enduring place in our program’s history," Franklin said in a statement released by the school. "Their commitment will never be forgotten. However, it’s time we bring back the tradition that represented Penn State for 125 years. We are a strong family, playing for one goal, one university and there is only one name that truly matters, Penn State."
Senior Penn State offensive lineman Angelo Mangiro took to social media to praise the move and did so eloquently. Here's some of what he had to say:
"In 2011, my first season in Happy Valley, it was a season the nation will never forget. The players and staff on that team could have easily been crushed by the immense pressure surrounding the program; however, we didn't because of the logo on the front of the jersey. We played for that logo, each other, and the former players.
"When Coach O'Brien came and put names on the uniforms to honor the players that stayed; I was extremely moved. I understood the history that surrounded our program and the basic whites and blues. I was thankful for Coach O'Brien to make that tough decision, and I felt that it was very appropriate at that time.
"But, that was then and this is now. We honored those who have stayed. There are only six of us left (Ben Kline, Kyle Carter, Matt Zanellato, Anthony Zettel, Carl Nassib, and myself). We have had our time to be honored. I felt the name on the back of my jersey was to honor the players and for my mother in the stands but, I have always played for the logo on the front. My mother doesn't need to see a name to pick me out on the field. She could spot me out of a crowd of a 107,000 easily. With Coach Franklin, it is time for us to get back to our traditions and put everything behind us."
With everything that has happened at Penn State in the past four years, you can understand why those loyal to the program would be protective of their remaining traditions. There's a danger in getting stuck in the past, but there's also strength in an enduring identity.
While a lot of programs try to outdo themselves by unveiling wilder and flashier uniform combinations every week, the Nittany Lions have always been synonymous with being anonymous. It's good to have that look back.