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PSU wrapup: Rudel: Between O’Brien status, too many seats to fill, PSU in unfamiliar times

Commentary

December 2, 2012
By Neil Rudel (nrudel@altoonamirror.com) , The Altoona Mirror

As the calendar turns to December, the Penn State football season and tumultuous past year in our rearview mirror, the Nittany Nation finds itself in uncharted territory.

Thanks to the NCAA sanctions, of course, there is no bowl game, the first of four seasons the Nittany Lions are ineligible for a postseason appearance. That in itself is unique considering in 46 seasons since 1966, Penn State has been out of the bowl picture just eight times.

Also unique is the fact that much of the late-season conversation - and concern - has centered around the status of Bill O'Brien and whether he might bolt from State College after just one season.

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O'Brien laid that to rest this week, saying he plans to be here, causing PSU fans to let out a sigh/gust of relief.

After enjoying the stability of the Joe Paterno era, Penn State never had to worry about its coach being courted. Paterno didn't want to go anywhere and, at least until the late 1990s, that suited everyone just fine. In fact, rarely did any assistants leave, either.

In the face of incredible adversity, O'Brien did an outstanding job, and being voted the Big Ten's coach of the year, deservedly, for an 8-4 record that included an 8-2 finish has only raised his profile.

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If a year ago he was somewhat of an unknown commodity in the shadow of Bill Belichick, O'Brien - in part because of how he managed the mess he inherited - is now one of the more attractive candidates in the country for any job, college or pro.

Look at his resume: Ivy League education. College experience in the ACC and now the Big Ten. NFL offensive whiz. Quarterback developer. Chance taker. Players run through a wall for him. Communicator. Master of the tight end. Able to follow a legend. Media savvy (unless he's emotional in the postgame).

With veterans returning at every position but quarterback, it's likely O'Brien will continue to be an attractive candidate, especially to NFL owners with deep pockets so Penn State should get used to the idea that speculation will keep surrounding its new star coach.

Another foreign concept to Penn State is the idea that it needs new ways to market its program.

It used to be that PSU only needed to open its doors to attract a full house. That is definitely not the case anymore as the average attendance - despite nice weather all season, excluding last week's chilly day against Wisconsin - dipped to 96,730.

That's the lowest since before the north end zone expansion (2001) and marked a fifth-straight year of declining attendance.

Almost never before has Penn State's fan support been an issue, but it's clearly becoming one. Whether it's a continued reaction to the STEP program, further fallout from firing Paterno, the ridiculous price of, unless you're pre-registered, $40 to park - which discourages a spontaneous trip - or an aging fan base, it needs addressed.

Nittany Lion Club dues are being lowered next year for more than 10,000 seats as part of the STEP program, and that's a start, but that could also create more visible holes in other parts of the stadium. Such as the 50-yard-lines, or at least their upper levels.

From this view, Penn State needs to consider establishing a younger fan base.

Maybe a $20 kid's 12-and-under ticket, when accompanied by an adult, can be considered for vacant portions of the north upper deck rather than making a family, in a challenging economy, pay $55 for a 4-year-old.

And with 45,000 students on campus, not to mention another 35,000 at branch campuses, now would be a good time to expand the student section from its base of 21,000, even if it means less revenue.

After all, isn't that what the university is trying to stand for - family values?

While Penn State is re-evaluating its marketing approach, it also may want to visit the hotels in State College - its partners - and suggest they remove the hankerchiefs from their faces in jamming two-night minimums at exorbitant prices down the fans' throats?

All of the above have contributed to where we are today, attendance-wise, and where Penn State may be headed.

Beaver Stadium has always been a very special place to watch college football, one of the greatest venues in sports. It now has a new coach, who has delivered a welcome brand of offense and, while combating difficult sanctions, needs all the support he can get.

And for the first time ever, there are 12,000-plus seats to fill.

Uncharted territory, indeed.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or nrudel@altoonamirror.com.

 
 

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