This take from an ND Blog-
Penn State damaged itself deeply and permanently in 1993.
To appreciate this, one needs to recall the unique national identity they carried into the early '90's. Led by a charming old-school icon with a Teflon image, the Lions were the darlings of the east-coast media which had no other regional team to champion.
Their January, 1987 championship over the fatigue-wearing bad-guys vaulted them into a position which -- dare I say -- temporarily allowed them to steal some of ND's spot as the guys in white hats, the national heroes. They wore old school uniforms, black shoes and could boast of solid (if not elite) graduation rates. They were the antithesis of the thugs whom they shocked, and the New York Times couldn't get enough of them. And, Yes, they were independent, so they enjoyed a growing national profile.
They won legitimate national titles in 1982 and 1986, and came within a goal line stand in the Sugar Bowl of winning another in 1978. Prior to then, Penn State enjoyed several undefeated seasons which resulted in no national championships, due to its very weak schedules. I should also note that their only titles came during seasons when they played Notre Dame and other major independents. By way of major victories, on national television, over powers such as ND, Pitt, and Georgia, Paterno's teams had become a national treasure.
Then in 1993, citing changing landscapes (mostly, financial considerations), Penn State became the eleventh member of the Big Ten. The anonymity associated with their not changing the name of the conference, alone, should have been brutal enough for them to have been insulted.
Over that time they have not won a single national title. Of course, their fans are quick to point out how they were "screwed" out of one in 1994, their second year in the Big Ten. To be fair, they had a very good team that year and I think it's reasonable to project that, had they played Nebraska, it would have been an excellent matchup. In reality -- what Penn State people simply refuse to acknoweldge -- is that their Big Ten affiliation, not the pollsters, was the reason they did not win the trophy. They got stuck drubbing a decent Oregon team for the Roses, while the Huskers enjoyed the prime-time stage, getting to play the role of the good-guys against Miami on January 1.
Yes, they also had a good team in 2005. But, recall that that team struggled to beat a 7-5 Florida State team in the Orange Bowl. By contrast either of the two top powers -- Texas and USC -- would have pummelled PSU. The Lions were no where close to a national title team that season.
Since affiliating, Penn State has been relegated to Ohio State's third to fourth most important game each year. Michigan, at one point, enjoyed an eight game winning streak against the Lions (even during a period of time when the Wolverines had some fairly weak teams). Iowa, too, has enjoyed consistent succcess against Penn State. Their once-notable matchups against in-state rival Pitt also are no more.
A personal note from the 2006 game in South Bend: The best trash-talking Penn State fans could muster my way that day was, "Ha-Ha. Ohio State killed you guys last year." This is life in the Big Ten; this what it had come to. Penn State finding pride only through the successes of its once-hated rival to the West.
The identity of PSU Football remains in its octogenarian leader. When he is soon gone from coaching Penn State, the only thing distiguishing them from Minnesota or Indiana is that Penn State will still be able to boast of a great women's volleyball team.