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January 13, 2011They call it the "spring semester," but that must have seemed like some kind of cruel joke as students trudged across Penn State's frigid campus Monday on the first day of classes. And if his classmates were looking grim as they headed out into the blustery cold, imagine how Rob Bolden felt. Bolden didn't want to be there in the first place. In fact, he was so unprepared for the start of the semester that he spent part of his morning on Twitter asking for directions. "Where is hosler building," he asked at one point. He must have figured he wasn't going to need that campus map anymore.
Joe Paterno figured otherwise, though, and you didn't need to be a student of Penn State football history or NCAA transfer rules to know which side had the upper hand in the dispute over Bolden's attempt to transfer. The only question concerned just how magnanimous Paterno was going to be toward the young quarterback and his father, Robert Bolden Sr., when they came to his office last week looking to take care of the paperwork. The answer, as it turned out: not very.
Paterno's decision to deny Bolden's transfer request has since sparked a debate over which side was right. There are cases to be made on behalf of both. There are also cases to be made against both. The only point of agreement is that neither player nor coach has come out of this conflict unscathed. Bolden has looked impatient, reluctant to pay the dues that all of his predecessors paid. Paterno has looked stubborn - enough to deny a teenager an opportunity to chase his dream.
We could get into a much larger debate here over the fairness of allowing coaches to come and go as they please while forcing players to jump through hoops, but that's a column for another time. The rules are the rules, and Paterno used them as he saw fit. It would be naive to think this was the first time he's played hardball with a disgruntled player.
Moreover, in this instance, he probably had cause to do so. If Penn State was the right choice for Bolden last year when he became the first true freshman of the Paterno era to open a season as the team's starting quarterback, it's hard to see why it wouldn't be the right choice now. Do the Nittany Lions have an established starter coming back at the position in 2011? Not exactly. Is Bolden's path back to the top of the depth chart blocked? Hardly. Is Paterno merely paying lip service to the notion that there will be a legitimate competition this spring for the starting job? Doesn't seem so. Given the likelihood that the position really is up for grabs, it's not hard to see why Paterno would want to compel Bolden to stick around at least through the spring. If Bolden really is the future, as was widely predicted early last season, the future is now.
There is a risk, though, and it's a big one. The risk is that Penn State isn't the right choice for Bolden. If he is focused on seeing how far football can take him - and his restlessness suggests he is - he might well end up deciding the Nittany Lions can't get him where he wants to go. It's no secret Penn State doesn't produce a lot of NFL quarterbacks. The Lions are one of only four Big Ten teams (Indiana, Iowa and Minnesota are the others) that during the 2000s did not put a quarterback on a regular-season NFL roster. Penn State did send Michael Robinson to the league in 2006, and he's still there, playing for the Seahawks, but he's long since been moved to running back.
Bolden isn't going to be able to take Robinson's route to the pros; he's not a running back trapped in a quarterback's body. If he's going to get there, it's going to be as a passer.
But the NFL is a long way off for a guy who's only just starting his second college semester. Before anyone can get a fix on whether he has a professional future, he has a lot of football left to play. Will it be at Penn State? Even after returning to University Park last weekend, Bolden didn't seem certain. "Finally back," he tweeted, "the right thing to do???"
Good question. For now, this episode is shedding more heat than light. Both are welcome this time of year, but when spring really does arrive, it'll be time for some answers.
Matt Herb is the editor for Blue White Illustrated's magazine.
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Down, but not out
Blue White Illustrated Web editor Nate Bauer has the Rob Bolden transfer story covered from all angles, including an analysis and the complete story.
Blue White Illustrated publisher Phil Grosz examines the state of the Nittany Lions' quarterback position, and what to make of the possibility of actual departures following the spring semester.
Recruiting: Expansion team
BWI recruiting contributor Ryan Snyder expands on the most recent class of 2011 prospects to make their verbal commitments to the Nittany Lions.
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