DALLAS - The end of any season brings a sense of finality.
Penn State's 30-14 loss to Houston in the TicketCity Bowl on Monday brought more than that: It brought the end of an era for Nittany Lion football as we know it.
Joe Paterno was fired Nov. 9, and his staff finished out the season. It, along with the Nittany Nation, now awaits the decision of Athletic Director Dave Joyner on the next head coach.
Not only were players hugging in an emotional scene afterward, they were embracing members of the coaching staff, most of whom likely worked their final game for PSU.
It hit everyone when they trudged from the field and up the Cotton Bowl tunnel to the locker room.
"Whenever you walked in and saw your seniors these guys are going [and] who knows what's going to happen to the rest of us?" offensive coordinator Galen Hall said. "You're going to miss those guys, and you're sorry it turned out this way for them."
Tom Bradley presided over a team prayer and thanked the players, coaches and managers for their dedication.
"Obviously, we're going to have a new football coach," he said. "It's going to be new for a lot of people."
The Jerry Sandusky scandal, which triggered Paterno's dismissal, has taken the entire team on a roller coaster - "to hell and back," quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno said - and the coaches, while wondering what the future holds, were more concerned about the players.
"I feel for our kids," Jay Paterno said. "They did nothing."
Defensive line coach Larry Johnson shared the sentiment.
"It's the end of an era because we know change is finally going to get here," he said. "That's what I reflected walking off the field. My passion is for the players in that locker room - how they're going to recover and move forward. That's my concern, not me."
Johnson has been a father figure to many of the team's African-American players and one of the most valuable assistants Penn State has ever had. He will have offers, but he said he will work with the other assistants on solidifying recruiting commitments until the search is finalized.
"What I've tried not to do is worry about what the next job is," he said.
The returning underclassmen are also eager for resolution. Junior defensive tackle Jordan Hill has submitted his NFL paperwork for a draft evaluation and has until Jan. 15 to declare.
"It's definitely a concern," he said. "You don't know what's going to happen. Hopefully, we find out sometime this week."
For now, though, the players felt badly that they didn't play their best game, which would have given them a chance to at least hang with Houston.
Instead, they started slowly and fell behind 17-0. They couldn't rattle Cougar quarterback Case Keenum or cover his receivers. Nor could they overcome Rob Bolden's inability to function at even an acceptable upper-Division I level.
But the performance was not, Justin Brown said, a product of all the off-the-field issues over the past two months.
"I don't think the distractions got to us," Brown said. "We were used to them."
Indeed, and that seemed to bring closer together a unit that was victimized unfairly by a sickening ordeal that will define 2011 way longer than anyone will remember the 9-4 record.
"It was sad to see the seniors go out with a loss," Hill said. "They were extraordinary leaders, and not just the captains - every senior."
Monday's merciful ending, Hill said, "will definitely take some stress off us with the circumstances that happened, but this is the hardest team to let go of because we were so close. When you go through adversity and it doesn't break you, it makes you stronger."
Hill sounded as if he's leaning toward returning because, "I want to go to the Rose Bowl," and he knows he'll be part of a nucleus that will include Brown, Silas Redd and Gerald Hodges.
"Once we get back to offseason training, we're going harder than we ever have," he said. "We're pushing guys harder. Our goal is to get out to Cali[fornia] and a national championship."
The coaching staff will miss that resolve.
"I think the one good thing that's come out of this is the character that our kids have really shown to everybody throughout," Jay Paterno said.
Hall, a coaching veteran since the 1960s, thought he had seen and been through everything until he went through this.
He was asked what it will take for the university to overcome it.
"Time," he said softly. "It's going to take time."
To that end, today marks the first day in the next life of the Penn State football program.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.