UNIVERSITY PARK - As the possibility of an NCAA "death penalty" loomed over Happy Valley and national media outlets swarmed the University Park campus, students, alumni and many others in the Penn State community wondered if things would ever return to normal.
More than a year later, some students have said Penn State has begun to return to normal and emerge stronger after the Jerry Sandusky scandal threatened to tear apart the university.
"It hasn't been all that different, to be honest with you," said Spencer Lambert, a Penn State senior. "Campus life has been normal; class has been normal."
For Lambert, the biggest change this fall has been the lack of preparation for a post-season bowl game for the Nittany Lions. Lambert plays trombone in the Penn State Blue Band, which he considers to be his "Penn State family."
"For me, I joined because of the music," Lambert said. "The thing that's really kept it special is that everyone's like family to me now."
Lambert's roommate and fellow Altoona Area High School graduate Luke Patterson said tradition is a large part of what helped the Blue Band and Penn State endure the past year.
"We've always had a great fan base and a lot of support," said Patterson, a senior.
The impact of the Nittany Lion senior players and members of the Blue Band goes beyond the past year, Patterson said. And helping to instill that sense of honor and tradition in new band members and students is "larger than just a few seasons" without postseason football, he said.
"I definitely think that the freshmen now, they came here with the sense of knowing what they're getting into," Patterson said. "They are the most motivated to get through this."
Traveling with the football team to the Iowa and Nebraska games in his senior year stood out for Patterson. Fans were hospitable and welcomed the Nittany Lions, Patterson said.
"Collectively, just the way we were treated was surprising in a very good way," Patterson. "We have a great band, a great school, and they let us know that."
This year's freshman class is not the only group dedicated to the school. The Nittany Lions' 31 senior players have been praised for their commitment to the program after the NCAA sanctions opened the door for potential transfers.
Many have credited senior quarterback Matt McGloin with leading the team both on and off the field.
"We have a never-say-die attitude," McGloin said earlier in the season.
For senior Hailey Mitchell, the past year has been one of a "never give up" attitude - and strong memories of Penn State football.
"Nothing can replace your freshman year" and your first classes, football games and friends, Mitchell said. "In my opinion, this year has been the best year. I haven't been more excited than this [football] season."
While the past year focused mostly on sanctions and legal battles, the return of football gave the Penn State community a chance to focus on something positive, Mitchell said.
"The focus was really on the players and the students and those kids on the field," she said. "Coming from a horrible tragedy at the school we love, I was excited about football, but it was really more than that, I think."
Head coach Bill O'Brien and the players - especially the team's 31 seniors - deserve recognition for their commitment to the school, Patterson said.
Lambert agreed and said he wouldn't be surprised if the team was honored in a special way during today's senior game against Wisconsin.
"It wouldn't surprise me," he said. "I feel like they deserve it. I think they did much better this year than anyone imagined they'd go."
Onward State reported on its website Friday that Penn State plans to honor the team by placing 2012 on the facade underneath the Beaver Stadium suites. The honor normally goes to undefeated, conference or national championship teams.
With half of his senior year remaining, Patterson said he is ready to graduate but will be at the game today cheering on the Nittany Lions and soaking up her remaining time at Penn State.
"This has been the best year of my Penn State experience," Patterson said.
Mirror Staff Writer Zach Geiger is at 946-7535.