Fear not, Penn St., for you have USC

USC is the preseason No. 1, and my first thought upon hearing that news was Penn State coach Joe Paterno. Mostly, how, wherever he is, he had to be indulging in a moment of “I told you so,” which is probably weird because he’s dead.

This column is not a treatise on the existence of an afterlife or where Paterno may have ended up, if there is an afterlife. And while I am telling you what this column is not, let us be very clear on this point: This is not to compare what went down at USC to what went down at Penn State. The Trojans ignored Reggie Bush getting paid for what he probably should have been paid for doing. The Nittany Lions ignored a serial pedophile, and in doing so enabled more kids to be raped. This is not apples to apples. This is a paper cut vs. a severed aorta.

Why my mind wandered to Paterno was less him and more the letter he wrote to what by then were his former Penn State players, saying “the fact is nothing alleged is an indictment of football.” He was right, mostly because we — media, fans, administrators — refuse to let it be an indictment of the culture of college football. Instead we scapegoat people.

This is genius really. People come and go, and this allows us to pretend the problem is people making bad decisions rather than say a system that is set up so when mistakes are made it is in everybody’s best interest to lie and cover up and lie and do anything and everything to protect the program. As Melky Cabrera and his reported fake website remind us, when in trouble with a lot at stake, people will do just about anything to keep their good thing going.

This is the overriding problem in college football, even after the NCAA cracked down on Penn State. The programs are too big to fail so people make decisions they might not otherwise.

If you are lucky, you are ignoring a player getting paid. If not, well, Paterno is sending you emails asking you to hold off on calling the authorities about a pedophile.

The Penn State deal is slightly unusual because the person we scapegoated was the coach. We typically scapegoat kids, pretending whatever free meal, free flight home or cash inducement is what is wrong rather than say perpetuating this fairy tale of college athletics as anything but a Fortune 500 business — which brings us back to USC.

Two years ago, the Trojans were slapped with a two-year bowl ban, stripped of scholarships and placed on double-secret NCAA probation because Bush and his family were getting money. It was not as severe as what Penn State received (four-year bowl ban, four-year scholarship reduction, $60 million in fines — and more) but supposed to be a crusher nonetheless.

“To be handed down what they said could be a death penalty, could take USC 10 years to come back from, then to have this recognition and be preseason No. 1 is very exciting for our fans because a lot of people thought two years ago that this would not be possible for USC,” Trojans coach Lane Kiffin said when No. 1 came on Saturday.

For the big successful programs like USC and, yes, eventually even Penn State, it is possible. The lesson, for the “We Are . . . Penn Staters,” is nothing is impossible to overcome when you are big enough and good enough.

USC is the blueprint, proof that this, too, shall pass.

I like USC, and I harbor no strong feelings about Kiffin one way or the other like so many of my brethren. He seems like a good enough young coach who did what all of us would do when faced when the choice of living in Tennessee and trying to win in the SEC or living in LA and trying to rule the Pac-12.

If you are mad about that, you are being dishonest because you would have done the exact same thing.

When Kiffin was hired by USC in January 2010, the sanctions had yet to be handed down, but the NCAA’s investigation was in its final stages and penalties seemed all but certain. Yet Kiffin still came to USC, in part because of this truth: That this kind of resurrection is possible at USC — to be banned from postseason play for two seasons and come out stronger.

“Do you feel that? Sure you do,” Kiffin said of whether USC is indeed stronger now than before. “Games already sold out, just energy around it, all those different things. That’s how it was before.”

It is exactly as it was before.

It is like nothing happened and certainly what happened was not viewed as a long-term indictment of the USC program or football in general. And, somewhere, I believe Paterno is saying “I told you so.”

Because he did.

He told us that all scandals, with time, fade and the football goes on. He told us lessons are rarely learned and Saturdays remain sacrosanct. He told us. And USC reminded us he’s right.