By Jack Carney | @jackwcarney
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS – As the kickoff to this year’s Big Ten Championship Game between Penn State and Wisconsin approaches, I got the chance to speak with longtime reporter Rich Scarcella of the Reading Eagle. Scarcella has been covering Penn State football since 1989.
Only five years ago the Penn State football program was nearly decimated by the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal and the NCAA sanctions imposed in July, 2012. Now the Nittany Lions find themselves one win away from a Rose Bowl berth and the possibility of a spot in the College Football Playoff. As someone who has covered Penn State for decades, Scarcella helped put this improbably quick recovery in perspective.
Q: How long have you been covering Penn State, and how did you get your start in this field?
A: I’ve been with the Reading Eagle since 1986. I’ve only had two jobs. The first place I worked was my home town in Hazleton. That’s where I grew up, and I worked for the paper there for five years. And then I got the job in Reading in ’86 covering everything in Reading until I got (the Penn State) beat in ’89. It was just one of those things. Reading had always covered Penn State.
Q: If I would have told five years ago, at the time of the Sandusky scandal, that in five years Penn State would be playing for a chance to go to the Rose Bowl, would you have believed me?
A: No. No, I would have said it’s going to take a lot longer than that. I would have thought – at least 10 years until they recovered from the sanctions. Gradually the sanctions were sort of relaxed. They lifted some of the sanctions as time went on. Instead of four years not being in a bowl game, it was only two. But still, even two years ago, I would have still said it would take seven, eight years total for them to be in a position like this.
Q: What has been the key to recovering and getting back to this point so quickly for Penn State?
A: Well, there are a lot of factors. One, let’s go back to 2012 when Bill O’Brien was the head coach. There were a lot of strong leaders on that particular team, and they held the team together and kept the program going even with the scholarship restrictions. And I think that was a big part of it. And then when James Franklin came aboard, you had a new athletic director, new president – it was almost like a fresh start. Because none of these people had anything to do with what happened with the scandal. So, James Franklin and his staff have done a wonderful job recruiting almost from day one. That’s been a big issue. And then you have this year, after the offense had struggled so badly in 2014 and 2015, he fired his offensive coordinator, more or less, and hired Joe Moorhead from Fordham. Hired Matt Limegrover, new offensive line coach. Hired a new safeties coach in Tim Banks. A third of the staff was changed. But especially the changes on offense, that has made a big difference in this team. The way they’re running – now you have an offense that fits what James Franklin wants to coach. Wants a dual threat quarterback. Their top two quarterbacks are dual threat quarterbacks, and Joe Moorhead’s system fits that. So it’s all kind of come together.
Q: From your point of view as someone who has covered the team for a long time, what would a win in the Big Ten Championship Game mean to the program?
A: I would say this. I’ll say that being here, playing in this game is one of the biggest surprises that I have seen since covering the team. And I think it’s one of the biggest surprises since 1966 when Joe Paterno became head coach. Very surprising season. Improbable. Even if they lose (to Wisconsin), it’s still something to say they won a share of the Big Ten East championship, and only five years ago they got hit with the scandal. Even four years ago, they got hit with the sanctions. It’s a huge story. So, winning tomorrow would just be like – I hate to use a cliché but it would be like icing on the cake. It really would be. But what I have found it has done, especially since they knocked off Ohio State, it has really enthused the fan base. It has given a lot of those people who were beaten down and felt badly about the scandal – it has given them a reason to cheer for Penn State and a reason to be happy about Penn State.
Q: Obviously things have changed a great deal over the past five years with the program. But specifically for you as a reporter, how have things changed?
A: Well, it’s really different because you had such continuity on the coaching staff and in the athletic department when Joe Paterno was head coach. I mean you realize he was the head coach for the 46 years and had been on the staff almost 60 years. I think it was 60 years. And that’s just changed. From 2011 to 2014, there were four different head coaches including an interim coach. It’s a big change. We used to kid each other about how many nights we spent in State College in 2012, and it was true. We were going up there constantly. For me, it’s a two-and-a-half hour drive. But even reporters from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, they were going a little bit further. That was different… (The scandal was) obviously one of the biggest stories in the history of college athletics. So that was just incredible. When you were in the middle of it – it was something new every day. But now five years later seeing this – yeah, it’s a big change. And James Franklin – going from a coach who was 84, I think, when he was fired, and now you have a coach who when he was hired was half (Paterno’s) age. That’s a big change.