IMAGINE, IF YOU can, a Penn State football season in the not-too-distant future - perhaps as early as 2012. The Nittany Lions come out of the tunnel for their season opener wearing white shoes, blue pants, blue jerseys with heretofore unseen decorative features. The whole getup is topped by blue helmets with school-logo decals on each side.
Hard to envision, you say? Well, how about this: The recently hired head coach not only is young enough to be Joe Paterno's son, but maybe even his grandson. The offense being run is high-tech, 21st-century stuff, heavy on downfield passing and gadget plays, not so much on the Big Ten-style power running that has been in vogue since Ohio State's Woody Hayes made "3 yards and a cloud of dust" the de facto conference motto.
Even if the Lions win big on this dawning of a new era, do a majority of the fans, alumni and students leave Beaver Stadium pleased by what they've seen? Are they angry at the departure from decades-old traditions in Happy Valley? Confused? Or do they withhold judgment for a certain grace period, like the husband who refuses to comment on his just-back-from-the-beauty-salon wife's hairdo until he's had sufficient time to become accustomed to it?
Yesterday was national signing day, college football's equivalent of the NFL draft. It's a time of unbridled hope, where bad teams attempt to get better by improving their talent pool, and good teams seek to become great ones by outrecruiting other members of the sport's upper tier.
For all the emphasis placed on coaching smarts, track records and systemic schemes, the lifeblood of any program is a constant influx of skilled athletes. The schools that regularly land highly rated recruiting classes are much more apt to challenge for BCS bowl berths than those that are obliged to settle for the leftovers.
All of which is why Penn State stands at what might be described as a recruiting crossroads moving forward. To many of today's five- and four-star prospects, the empire that JoePa has so painstakingly crafted during his 45-plus years in charge is stodgy and unimaginative. Recent party-crashers to the big time are considered fresh and innovative.
No question, the Penn State way still appeals to a certain group of kids, or at least their parents, who are comfortable with long-established patterns. Other prospects are more drawn to a place like, say, Oregon, with its multiple uniforms and a color-splotched basketball court that resembles a Jackson Pollock painting.
As late as mid-October, Penn State - which in recent years has regularly finished with top 25 recruiting classes - was facing disaster, with only one verbal commitment. The pace picked up in recent weeks, with 16 players signing binding grants-in-aid yesterday. Rivals.com had Penn State's Class of 2011 36th nationally, and recruiting analyst Tom Lemming, of MaxPreps, described it as "not a great class, but a decent one."
How successfully the Nittany Lions recruit in the foreseeable future is dependent on several factors. How long will the 84-year-old Paterno continue to hold on, by his choice or not? And when Paterno finally does step away, how much of the blueprint he's designed will continue to be followed?
Let's start with those plain-Jane uniforms.
"Kids today think Penn State's uniforms are boring," said Mike Farrell, of Rivals.com. "They love Oregon because they have 52 uniform combinations, or however many it is. The NFL started that trend with all the throwback unis. Kids like to change things up every now and then. You don't get that at Penn State. Now, some of the older fans might be resistant to change, but I think more people interested in that program might like an updated look."
An opposite viewpoint is taken by Scout.com's Bob Lichtenfels, who believes there is still a place for the familiar in a changing world.
"I think some people's reaction would be to put the coach that changes those uniforms on the first plane, train or bus out of town," Lichtenfels said. "That simplicity, believe it or not, impresses a lot of kids. The uniforms make a statement. I don't think they'll ever change."
Lichtenfels, however, believes that Penn State makes a mistake by limiting its recruiting on more of a regional basis, seldom going after players from talent-rich Sunbelt states.
"The one thing I've always been surprised about is that they've chosen not to recruit nationally," Lichtenfels said. "I think they can. Penn State has enough name recognition that they can pretty much go into any state they want and recruit any kid they want. Yes, they go into South Carolina, Maryland and Virginia, but why haven't they established a presence in Florida, California or Texas? I don't have an answer for that."
Also a negative is the perception that most of the heavy lifting in recruiting by Paterno's very veteran staff is done by a select few assistants, and none at all by the great man himself, whose last in-home visit, in 2008, was with quarterback Terrelle Pryor, who signed with Ohio State.
"Recruiting has become more and more competitive," Farrell noted. "To get an edge, you really have to be like the Energizer Bunny. There are guys on Joe's staff who are good recruiters, but I don't think there are enough of them for Penn State to continually pull in top 25 classes."
Adds Lichtenfels: "Joe's age and the uncertainty of who'll be there when he goes is being used against Penn State by other recruiters. Schools are fighting wars for these big-time kids. Take a kid like [three-star defensive lineman] Delvon Simmons at McKeesport. He goes to school and on a given day [Southern California head coach] Lane Kiffin's there, [Florida's] Will Muschamp's there, [Texas Tech's] Tommy Tuberville's there. It's a who's who of college football. And the big name that's always missing is Joe Paterno."
PENN STATE SIGNINGS
Anthony Alosi OL 6-6 285 Marlton, N.J./The Hun School
Adrian Amos S 6-1 205 Baltimore, Md./Calvert Hall
Deion Barnes DE 6-5 230 Philadelphia/Northeast
Bill Belton Ath. 5-9 192 Sicklerville, N.J./Winslow Township
Kyle Carter TE 6-4 235 Bear, Del./William Penn
Sam Ficken PK 6-3 180 Valparaiso, Ind./Valparaiso
Jordan Kerner DE/TE 6-5 225 Fairview, Pa./Fairview
Ben Kline LB 6-2 220 York, Pa./Dallastown
Angelo Mangiro OL 6-3 292 Succasunna, N.J./Roxbury
Ryan Nowicki OL 6-5 282 Glendale, Ariz./ Cactus
Shawn Oakman DE 6-8 250 Lansdowne/Penn Wood
Shyquawn Pullium DB 6-1 180 Erie, Pa./Kiski Prep
Allen Robinson WR 6-3 190 Orchard Lake, Mich./St. Mary's
Donovan Smith OL 6-5 282 Owings Mills, Md./Owings Mills
Matt Zanellato WR 6-3 190 Burke, Va./Lake Braddock
Anthony Zettel DE/OL 6-4 255 West Branch, Mich./Ogemaw Heights