An Opportunity For a Beleaugered University

Given Penn State’s four consecutive national women’s volleyball titles from 2007 to 2010, plus former Nittany Lions Megan Hodge (left) and Christa Harmotto (middle) on the U.S. Olympic team, PSU could re-brand itself as the home of women’s volleyball.

So I’m watching my approximately fiftieth hour of Olympic volleyball, and a certain university keeps showing up in U.S. players’ bios.

This school has been in the news a lot recently, and not for good reasons. Scandals, sanctions — the school is kinda taking it in the teeth right now.

Can you guess which school I’m talking about? That’s right: the University of Hawai (their punter just got a DUI).

Just kidding, of course I’m talking about Pennsylvania State University, the former stomping grounds for Matt Anderson, Megan Hodge and Christa Harmotto. Three Nittany Lions on the U.S. volleyball roster make PSU the second-biggest Olympic feeder behind Long Beach State.

It’s no coincidence that PSU alumni make up essentially an eighth of U.S. Volleyball: the school has one of the best volleyball programs in the NCAA.

The women’s team has especially dominated the college game: they won the Atlantic 10 every year from 1983 to 1990, then moved to the Big 10 and posted 24 more conference victories.

Oh yeah, and they’ve also won five national championships, having made the NCAA tournament every year since 1981.

The Nittany Lion men haven’t exactly been slouches, either. Two national championships, a playoff berth every year since 1999 and all but five times since 1981, a conference title in all but five years since 1981 — most schools would kill for a history like that.

But the Nittany Lion women are better. And they could be the key to rebuilding PSU.

I wrote that in order to move forward, PSU needs to create an identity divorced from its football program. With the right marketing and boosterism, PSU could re-brand itself as the “Home of Women’s Volleyball.”

Very few athletic programs define themselves by their women’s sports teams. UConn is an exception, as is Tennessee to a lesser extent (Pat Summitt doesn’t demand the limelight the way Geno Auriemma does), but for the most part no one’s tried to make a buck off the XX side of its athletics department.

I don’t know why this is, but the men just usually come first, the women a distant second. Considering “excitement” as much depends on a team’s packaging — PR and marketing, broadcasting, media coverage, etc. — as its actual athletes, schools refusing to push women’s athletics seems to be a conscious decision, not an unavoidable difference between the two genders.

Women’s sports — especially at the collegiate level, where the athletes seem the most passionate — need more publicity, as does volleyball. It’s a sport whose excitement and explosiveness matches or dwarfs that of more popular sports (baseball, hockey and soccer), but it remains a “four-year sport” — very popular during the Olympics, then undiscussed for the next four years.

PSU could do many a favor by throwing its weight behind the women’s volleyball team. If the U.S. women can bring home the gold — they came to London ranked No. 1 in the world — the school can say it creates gold-medalist volleyballers (considering Anderson’s impact in London, they could say this about the men, too).

Beyond whatever monetary gains the school could gain through this strategy, they’d at least shift the conversation away from a football team mired in controversy and crippled by the NCAA for at least the next four years. After all, volleyball and football have barely anything in common.

The field-of-play is different. The number of players per side is different. The format for matches is different. The positions have different names. Scoring is different. Possessions look different, even from other net sports like tennis.

You don’t watch volleyball and think it’s another sport transplanted to the court, and you definitely don’t think it’s football in a new format.

So if PSU wants a fresh start post-Sandusky and Paterno (regardless of if they deserve one), they should start pushing their women’s volleyball team to the forefront of their marketing and recruiting. When people think of PSU, they should first and foremost think, “that’s the best school in women’s volleyball.”

Get people thinking about PSU women’s volleyball enough, and they’ll probably stop thinking about PSU football.

And that could do more for PSU then a national title ever could.

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