The face of Penn State football was the same for so long it was hard to imagine what the next one would be. It has changed and morphed during the last nine months - sometimes hideous, sometimes proud, sometimes sad, sometimes silent.
The old face of Penn State football was craggy and cunning and defiant, which it had to be to last through the decades. It once was depicted on a statue that stood outside the great stadium that had doubled and tripled in size while Joe Paterno was the football coach. Now he is gone, and the statue is gone, and the events of these last months have made it difficult to determine what is left behind.
Last week was another of those familiar weeks for Penn State, one body blow after another and all of them being absorbed in an atmosphere in which it was hard to tell friend from foe. The president of the school, without the formal approval of the board of trustees, for whom he allegedly works, decided to remove Paterno's statue and agreed to a set of sanctions against the current football team that were harsh but, according to Rodney Erickson, nothing like they might have been.
Maybe that's true, although Erickson is the only one saying that Erickson got the best deal he could for the school. The NCAA, admittedly an organization that filters the truth through its own unique prism, says that wasn't the way it happened.
Whom to believe? Who are the friends and who are the foes? That became an even better question when other football programs sent recruiters to Penn State in hope of luring away the players who had been made free agents by the NCAA, picking at the food on new coach Bill O'Brien's plate before it even had a chance to cool.
The sins are still greater than the penance, and there can be no absolution for what happened on campus and what was allowed to continue by some of the highest ranking administrators at the school. There isn't a punishment to fit the crimes, but the world spins, the days go by, and both Penn State and its football team struggle to live with the consequences.
Those consequences go down two separate paths now. The school is facing enormous financial losses in civil lawsuits brought by the victims of Jerry Sandusky. As an added bonus, the school's general liability insurer filed a memo in the Court of Common Pleas last week saying it wasn't going to be doing the paying because the school didn't tell it what was going on in 1998 and beyond. Well, join the club on that one.
Down the other path, the football team is also facing enormous losses, and there's no insurance that can guard against them. It will be difficult to recruit top players to a program that can't compete in a bowl game until the 2016 season and won't be free of the last scholarship limitations until the 2018 season.
It was amid all this now-standard turmoil last week that the new face of Penn State football finally emerged, however. It was the face of senior linebacker Michael Mauti as he stood with senior running back Mike Zordich and approximately 30 of his teammates to say that the team was sticking together.
"We take this as an opportunity to create our own legacy," Mauti said. "This program was not built by one man, and it's sure as hell not going to be torn down by one man."
In a very real way, what looked like a no-win situation for the current team may actually be the opposite. Whatever the team's record on the field, it will be viewed with an asterisk in the minds of professional football scouts and coaches who will judge the Penn State players for possible employment.
If you know anything about the way football coaches think, the qualities being shown by Mauti and the Penn State players who stay with the program - loyalty, tenacity, heart, fight, competitiveness - are exactly the character components that get old-school football guys all gooey inside. You don't think these guys will get an extra look because of that? They will.
O'Brien didn't pitch a shutout when he spoke to his team about fighting the fight together. It seems likely that star tailback Silas Redd is going to transfer to Southern California, and there will be a few others as well. That had to happen, although O'Brien was taken aback by the feeding frenzy of other programs, particularly his Big Ten brothers at Illinois. O'Brien said he was in the State College airport when six Illini assistants deplaned wearing their school gear and carrying their Illinois carpetbags.
Illinois head coach Tim Beckman said he was just playing by the NCAA rules and added, "We did not go after them. We only talked to individuals who were willing to talk to us."
Exactly what part of flying to State College isn't going after them, Beckman didn't explain, but it doesn't appear the trip was successful anyway. Penn State players may have already gone to hell and back, but most of them have gotten a whiff of Champaign, Ill., and know it's not an upgrade on either end.
O'Brien didn't much like the Wild West aspect of things that the NCAA failed to foresee, and the face of Penn State football wasn't very amused by the rustling attempts, either.
"For me, if you're going to sit here and wish our program well and then try to pull the legs out from under us by taking our kids . . . I've got a problem with that," Mauti told reporters at the Big Ten's media day, where he subbed for Redd.
Having a problem with Mauti is not a good thing, and maybe Illinois will recognize that when Penn State visits lovely Champaign in late September. It could be that most teams are going to have a bigger problem with Penn State this season than one would imagine. You never know. The face of the program has changed, and it is still changing. Predicting how it will finally look is as foolhardy a mission as it would have been to predict all that has already happened.