Admittedly, the following concept could just be the making of my own imagination.
The thinking goes like this: Due to Penn State’s tradition of success and historically significant reputation in the world of college football, its fan base gradually grew accustomed to reaching those levels of success. Maybe not to the level of some of the game’s most elite programs, a la today’s Alabama or Ohio State expecting to compete for national championships every season, but the presumption of success was still a significant one.
For many years, Penn State fans could check out the schedule before an upcoming season and simply count on eight wins for the year built on reputation alone. Maybe a presumed loss or two would sprinkle the campaign, and a few toss-ups could round it out, but that baseline of at least eight wins per season would remain nonetheless.
In some ways, the past four years of Penn State football have marked a break from that.
As soon as the NCAA sent down its sanctions against the program in the summer of 2012, all bets were off. Players transferred, recruiting classes were slashed, coaching staffs turned over and suddenly, simply staying above the water line with winning records sufficed as a new standard of success.
Even at the start of the 2016 season, most expectations from fans and the media observing the Penn State football program predicted improvement, but nothing to the level of what would amount to a remarkable 11-3 campaign including a Big Ten Championship and Rose Bowl berth. At no point leading into the 2016 season was there a presumption of wins outside of maybe the Lions’ home opener against Kent State, and at conference bottom-feeder programs Purdue and Rutgers.
Assuming the premise of high expectations for the larger Penn State fan base isn’t wildly off base, the question then is whether or not the 2017 season marks a return to that standard of normalcy.
Sitting with James Franklin for our annual preseason Q&A in June, the Nittany Lion head coach was asked if he felt the upcoming season would be a reversion to a time when fans might not take each and every game seriously. Acknowledging that possibility, Franklin made his pitch for fans to avoid that trap.
“When you play the game of football and you get 12 scheduled games a year, each one of those is like gold. And you look at the programs around the country that sell out every single game, I think they approach it like that,” said Franklin.
Citing Nebraska specifically as a great example of establishing and maintaining that type of outlook, Franklin referenced the Cornhuskers’ ongoing NCAA record 354 home sellouts as an aspirational standard for Penn State to meet.
“They sell out when things are going well, they sell out when things are tough, they sell out against good opponents, they sell out against opponents that people wouldn't view it as sexy," said Franklin. "And to me, I'd love for us to get this place like that, where we look at it as not only who we're playing but hey, this is an opportunity to get in the stadium with 107,000 fans and be a part of something bigger than just yourself. It's an opportunity to tailgate with my friends. It's an opportunity to make a statement about the university and make a statement about the football program and the type of support we get. And, let's see if we can go on a run like some of these programs that have gone six, seven years or even longer with sellouts.”
Using Beaver Stadium’s official capacity of 106,572 as the standard of a sellout, the Nittany Lions hit that number just once during the 2016 season in October’s 24-21 upset of then No. 2-ranked Ohio State. In seven home games at Beaver Stadium, the program did however average 100,257 attendees per outing, which was an improvement over the numbers from the 2015 season.
The most recent season in which the program averaged a sellout at home was in 2009, posting 107,008 fans per game in eight home outings. The year prior, the Lions averaged 108,254 fans; more than 108,000 in 2007, too.
Citing sellouts as the manifestation of that attitude of the larger fan base, Franklin had a bigger point to make beyond just the fans in seats at Beaver Stadium, though.
“I know I'm talking about sellouts, but I guess what I'm saying is, I think when people start taking the wins and the season for granted, that's what happens,” said Franklin. “It's an appreciation, and it's like I tell our players all the time, I want our players to appreciate the blessings that we have here at Penn State and the opportunity that they have here in life. If you go through life from a point of appreciation, you're going to be so much more happy and you're going to be so much more fulfilled than someone that's always looking at the would've, could've, should've and the shortcomings. I think with football being so different that we only have a limited amount of games, and that's also what makes each game so exciting and so important, the regular season in football is more important than any other sport because each game is life or death.”
Of course, fan turnout at Beaver Stadium is something of a conflation of two points.
The Season Ticket and Equity Program (STEP) introduced for the 2011 season certainly had something to do with a downturn in attendance, changing technology for television viewing at home, economic realities in the region, along with the obvious impact of the outside events that rocked the entire university that fall.
Still, with the Penn State football program meeting and exceeding its previous standards of excellence last season, Franklin offered his vision for the attitude he’d like to prevail moving forward.
“I'd like us to get to the point where we just have so much appreciation for football, for Penn State, for this community and for opportunities to get together with friends and family to celebrate,” said Franklin. “Maybe the taking for granted of the wins and the seasons that maybe we did in the past for a while, and then what we've been through here recently, can we morph all these experiences together into maybe more of a purity of the sport, purity of the game, and purity of Penn State, and just enjoy it? That's what I would hope.”
Soon enough, Franklin and the larger Penn State football community will learn how attitudes have evolved as a result of the 2016 season.