Dienhart: How do you pick up the pieces?

Dienhart: How do you pick up the pieces?

The repercussions of a sex-abuse scandal involving former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky will be felt for years at Penn State. The fallout among the school’s brass has been swift and stunning. Joe Paterno was unceremoniously fired yesterday. On the same day, school president Graham Spanier also was dumped. Athletic director Tim Curley has taken a leave of absence after being charged with perjury. Still, their fates pale compared to Sandusky’s victims.

At some point, Penn State must begin to pick up the pieces. And the process begins this Saturday with a visit from No. 19 Nebraska.

Playing a game may seem trivial, given the gravity of the situation in State College. How can anyone possibly focus or think about football with one of the ugliest stories in college sports history unfolding at Penn State? Whether the game even should be played is debatable, but it will go on.

Nonetheless, the No. 12 Nittany Lions have to finish the season and move forward against this sordid backdrop. Yesterday, the school appointed defensive coordinator Tom Bradley to serve as interim head coach the rest of the season and he spoke Thursday morning.

Bradley has been a loyal Penn State assistant, joining the staff as a general assistant in 1979 after playing defensive back for the Nittany Lions from 1975-78. Bradley followed Sandusky as coordinator in 2000 and widely is considered one of the best in the business.

“I have no reservations about taking this job,” Bradley said at a press conference today. “It’s with very mixed emotions and a heavy heart that this occurred and I’m going through this. I grieve for the victims, I grieve for the families. …”

Penn State may be able to move on with games, but it will take years for the school to repair its image—if it ever happens.

“That’s a lengthy answer,” said Bradley, when asked how the school can restore its once-sterling reputation. “Not sure I have all the answers now. We have to find a way to restore confidence.”

Penn State has surprised many by racing to an 8-1 start, sitting atop the Leaders Division with a two-game lead over Ohio State and Wisconsin with three games to play. Back in August, hardly any pundits saw this coming from a team that finished 2010 with a 7-6 record (4-4 in the Big Ten).

There were pressing issues at quarterback. The offensive line had a lot to prove and some defensive ends needed to step up.

But the Nits have used a combination of great defense, serviceable quarterback play and the strong running of back Silas Redd to confound experts, who didn’t envision Penn State having the top record in the Big Ten as the season hit the home stretch in November. But somehow, focus must be found amid the tragedy that’s unfolding at Penn State.

“I think (the team) will be ready to play Saturday,” said Bradley, who didn’t address specifics about the scandal that has enveloped the school. “They had a lengthy team meeting.”

After the Cornhuskers’ visit, the Nittany Lions finish the season with trips to Ohio State and Wisconsin—the teams in hot pursuit of Penn State in the Leaders Division. Bottom line: No school has a more daunting finish to the season than Penn State.

The Nittany Lions have a two-game lead over the Buckeyes and Badgers, meaning they can afford to lose one game and still win the Leaders and advance to the inaugural Big Ten title game. But if they drop two, the Nittany Lions could lose the division crown on a tiebreaker depending on how Ohio State and Wisconsin finish the season.

Bradley says the team had a lengthy meeting and talked it out. And he mentioned a letter arriving from the former lettermen this afternoon that will describe what it means to be a Penn State football player.

“They’ll be OK,” said Bradley.

Once the book is closed on 2011, the search will be on for a head coach to replace Paterno. But that search could be delayed while Penn State looks for an athletic director and a president. The next coach will have to connect with Penn State’s vast alumni base, soothing feelings of betrayal and building fractured trust.

In addition to Bradley, some of the names being mentioned as a possible successor to Paterno include former Florida coach Urban Meyer, Miami (Fla.) coach Al Golden, Boise State coach Chris Petersen, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, Rutgers coach Greg Schiano and Houston coach Kevin Sumlin, among others.

But it’s still early. Whoever gets the job will find a program that is built for success. In fact, Penn State will likely remain a powerful program no matter who follows Paterno.

The school has a tradition that’s on par with national powers like Alabama, Texas, USC, Oklahoma and Florida, among others. And under Paterno, success has been rampant. The program has won two national championships (1982, 1986), had five undefeated, untied teams and 23 finishes in the Top 10 of the national rankings.

The school also has been an NFL factory with more than 350 former players who have signed NFL contracts, including 32 first-round draft choices.

When it comes to support, fans pack 106,572-seat Beaver Stadium for home games, making it one of the loudest and most intimidating venues in the Big Ten.

Players still will to want to be part of that incredible foundation laid over the past 46 seasons by Paterno. And they also may want to be part of a healing process that may never end in State College. Speaking of players, the Penn State job is attractive because of its proximity to fertile recruiting territory smack dab in the middle of the Keystone State. Some of the best high school football is played in Pennsylvania.

And Penn State also is close to populated areas that annually teem with talent, including New Jersey, Ohio and Maryland. Paterno habitually harvested great players from those outlying areas—and the next coach will have that same benefit.

That coach will also have the enormous challenge of leading a public healing, too. Being the head coach of Penn State has long been a big job. But the revelations of the last week made the challenges of the position even bigger.

But before then, Penn State and Bradley must finish this season, a season that forever will be defined for all the wrong things now matter where the Nittany Lions finish in the standings. Bradley and the Nits are ready to move forward with the healing process on Saturday.

“I think the message is clear,” said Bradley. “Let’s show them what Penn State is really all about … Let’s show class, let’s show dignity.”

Tom Dienhart is a senior writer for BTN.com. Find all of his work at www.btn.com/tomdienhart, follow Dienhart on twitter at @BTNTomDienhart, and click here to subscribe to his RSS feed.

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