“We strive to be No. 1. We work hard to achieve our goals and when Saturday comes and we walk on the grass in this stadium, we stand as a team. We tighten up our belts. We look across at our opponents. We say, come on, let’s go, let’s see how good you are, let’s play. We are ready. We play with enthusiasm and recklessness. We aren’t afraid to lose. If we win, great, wonderful – and the alumni are happy for another week. But win or lose, it is the competition which gives us pleasure.” Joe Paterno, 1973 Commencement Speech
When people ask me what I write about, I say a sort of human interest side of football. I watch the games and root hard for our Lions, and while I do that I keep my eyes open for a nugget of truth. Something maybe bigger than football. Something that strikes a chord with me. Today it’s the reaction to this loss that stirs me. It’s got me thinking about expectations.
What are your expectations when Penn State plays? Do you expect to win? Do you expect to win every game? Do you expect to catch passes? Every pass? Do you expect to make a run for National Champion? Every season? I’m not trying to make a point (yet); I’m honestly curious. What is the expectation here?
If the expectation is to win, that winning is the most important, and Penn State loses, then what? Frustration? Anger? Calling for Franklin’s firing? Disparaging the players? Check, check, check, and check.
What if we never expected Penn State to win? What if we always hoped they did and always rooted for them to but never placed that winning expectation? What if we enjoyed the game simply for the thrill of the competition? What if we quit buying into this “elite” program mentality and instead focused on doing all the little things right? What if win or lose it was the competition that gave us pleasure?
Make no mistake, we strive to be number one. We set lofty goals and we aim to achieve them. We practice and improve and bring our best, always. Every fan among us has JoePa’s Browning quote in their DNA: “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?”
Coach Franklin doesn’t need me to criticize him or cover for him. I’ve seen all the stats. I’ve heard all the post-game conferences. Last quarter losses are dreadful. I’m not taking away from the particular vexation of last-second losing. I haven’t forgotten the last second field goal loss to Minnesota in 1999. I still hate Michigan a little for our last-second loss in 2005. And, I could barely bring myself to explain my groan to my five-year-old when MSU caught their last-minute touchdown pass.
Yet, at the end of the day, it’s just a game. We all got up the next day, drank our pumpkin spice coffee or went to church or enjoyed family time at a fall fest or did our regular Sunday thing. Maybe we felt bummed that Penn State lost, but it’s not the end of the world or even the season. It’s disappointment. It’s “ah well they were the better team this time.” I expect there’ll be another game next weekend.
I don’t know what your expectations are. Perhaps you think I’m naive or out of touch. Or maybe you’ll take a moment to take a look at your own expectations. What I know for sure is this: I will wake up tomorrow just as passionate about Penn State as ever, just as loyal to this team as ever, and just as excited for our next match up as ever.
To our Nittany Lions I say: Win or lose, I love to watch you play.