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IOWA CITY, Iowa - This, I never expected.
I never thought that on this coming Saturday in October, it wouldn't be totally uncomfortable to see Penn State's football team in Kinnick Stadium.
In July, I hoped the NCAA was dead serious about punishing Penn State football with a death penalty for the school's absence of institutional control regarding Jerry Sandusky's crimes of sexually abusing children.
Like so many of you, I was Penn Stated-out. Just get rid of the school's football program for a few years, let everyone know the buck does stop somewhere in college athletics, and make the Big Ten live with 11 football teams for a while.
Life would go on in college football, a better life than those damaged by Sandusky and the blind eyes turned by high-ranking Penn State administrators.
In my mind at that time, any compromise that would have kept Nittany Lion football in business in 2012 would have been a cop-out to keep the Big Ten whole and save a marquee college football program from total collapse. I never thought a death penalty would happen. Too many dollars were at stake.
But NCAA President Mark Emmert told new Penn State President Rodney Erickson that most of the NCAA's leadership wanted to impose a 4-year death penalty on Nittany Lions football. Erickson said the school would have gotten that penalty had it not agreed to the severe NCAA sanctions it is now under. And severe, they are.
So here we are, with this prime-time football game between Penn State and Iowa. Business as usual, it isn't.
This is the post-Joe Paterno era. This is the post-scandal era. A wounded football program, a wounded university.
Yet, at midseason this Penn State team is likable. It began the season with a home loss to Ohio and a road defeat to Virginia, and it looked like the Lions would be punching bags all season. But here they are with a 4-game winning streak, playing with purpose, spirit, and a nothing-to-lose demeanor.
Whatever new coach Bill O'Brien has done in motivating and instructing his team, it should be bottled and sold to leaders everywhere.
When Penn State rallied from a 28-17 fourth-quarter hole two Saturdays ago to peel off three touchdown drives and defeat previously unbeaten Northwestern, 39-28, how could anyone not be impressed?
You can't go to a bowl game? You can't compete for a spot in the Big Ten title game? You've seen several teammates transfer out before the season started, including star running back Silas Redd? You've witnessed the unusual sight of empty seats at Beaver Stadium this season?
Shrug it all off, as well as that 0-2 start. O'Brien's team has played for the joy and pride and satisfaction of competing, trying to make the best of a tough situation. How can you not like and respect that?
No one involved with Penn State football today had the remotest connection to the horrors of what happened on that campus. If you feel compelled to jeer the Nittany Lions Saturday night, do so for partisan football fan reasons only.
It will be a tough go for Penn State football for several years. The reduced scholarships and recruiting disadvantages will be felt for a long time.
But today, not everything associated with the phrase "Penn State football" feels disgusting or discouraging. That's a victory in itself, one that seemed so unlikely just a couple months ago.