As 107,903 college football fans filed quietly out of Beaver Stadium, the shadow of Joe Paterno hung over them.
The Penn State Nittany Lions had just lost 17-14 to the visiting Nebraska Cornhuskers on Saturday before the largest crowd of the season – the first time the 84-year-old Mr. Paterno hadn’t served as head coach in 46 years.
The coaching legend was fired three days earlier when he became the focus of a media and public firestorm in the wake of the arrest of his former defensive co-ordinator, Jerry Sandusky, on child sex-abuse charges. Two other university officials face criminal charges, while Mr. Paterno and university president Graham Spanier lost their jobs because of their perceived inaction in the face of accusations against Mr. Sandusky.
Mr. Paterno instantly became the focus of the storm because his vaunted coaching status made him the most powerful man on campus. The outside world vilified him for ostensibly putting his football program above the welfare of children, but thousands of Penn State students rioted the night his firing was announced.
The way most of Pennsylvania sees it, and it seems almost everyone in this state has ties to Penn State, he became a scapegoat for an administration that screwed up monumentally. Even faculty members who don’t particularly like the way the football program overshadows university life point out that Mr. Paterno used his position to raise millions of dollars for things like the Joe Paterno library.
“I’m a law student, so I’m trying to remain as objective as possible,” said post-graduate student Christopher Grassi of Nazareth, Pa. “The way his departure was handled just leaves a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths. He did over 60 years of work at Penn State and the vast majority of that was good.
“A lot of people say this might have been a moral failing. But is one bad deed enough to condemn a man? It’s hard to see him go out like this.”
By Saturday, university officials participated in a mass mea culpa. Messages of contrition, condolences to the victims and their families and a vow to make things right from interim president Rodney Erickson were put on the Penn State web site and broadcast at the game.
“Although we can’t go back to business as usual, our university must move forward,” Dr. Erickson said on the stadium scoreboard. There was only polite applause.
But the game also did not turn into a spontaneous protest at Mr. Paterno’s firing. There was no shortage of T-shirts and sweatshirts bearing the slogans Joe Knows Football or Thanks Joe but only one chant of “Joe Pa-terno” really gained momentum during the game and it quickly died.
When the last attempt of the feeble Penn State offence petered out in the final seconds, the fans quietly left the stadium. As they waited for the crowd in front of them to file up the stairs, one fan clad in Penn State blue turned to another man wearing a red Nebraska sweatshirt, the colour the visiting fans were asked not to wear, and said, “Have a safe trip home.”
Outside, thousands of fans went back to their RVs, cars and trucks in the parking lot and resumed the tailgate parties. Despite the picture-postcard weather for a mid-November day there was no celebratory air, none of the spontaneous call-and-response chants of “We are … Penn State!” that are a staple of most home games.
It was as if no one wanted to be seen celebrating in any fashion after the shocking events of the previous days brought down the scorn of the world. While there were reports of some bad behaviour – a man staging a quiet protest against Mr. Paterno said he had beer poured on him – there was little evidence of it. Of the thousands of fans observed during a walk around the stadium before and after the game not one appeared the worse for drink. The only smoke in the air came from barbeques and cigars.
“I think it’s a little subdued because of the situation the last couple days,” said Bob Beirlair of Altoona, Pa., who was quietly drinking a beer beside a friend’s RV. “I think overall the students are hell-bound to prove to the public that they’re not crazy and rioting all the time and they did think about the kids.”
However, a few blocks north of the campus, at Mr. Paterno’s house on a leafy street, it was still all about the legend. Several dozen fans gathered on the sidewalks. A sign said, “Thanks Joe We Love You.” They cheered when a student laid a blue-and-white pompom on Mr. Paterno’s sidewalk.
Then, as a young man in a blue Penn State windbreaker walked up the street, the crowd began clapping and then rose in a standing ovation. It was Jay Paterno, Joe’s son and the team’s quarterbacks coach.
“Sorry we didn’t quite get it done for you,” he said, then got into a truck parked at his father’s house and slowly drove away.