There was only one camera crew left by Friday in front of Joe Paterno’s house, a few blocks away from the Penn State University Campus. Next to them was a lone fan, straining to hold his arm out as far as possible in order to take a picture of himself with his cellphone camera with the house as a backdrop.
They were all signs the media storm that hit the campus in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal, which took down Paterno, university president Graham Spanier and a few other administrators, was lessening. Elsewhere, the business of cleaning up after a scandal was under way.
Interim president Rod Erickson announced that assistant football coach Mike McQueary was placed on administrative leave and will not be on the sidelines for Saturday’s game between the Nittany Lions and the Nebraska Cornhuskers. McQueary testified before a grand jury that he saw Sandusky, a former defensive co-ordinator on Paterno’s staff, sexually assaulting a child in the locker-room showers in 2002. The resulting fallout led to Sandusky being arrested and Paterno and Spanier fired. A day earlier, Penn State officials said McQueary received threats.
There will also be an internal investigation. Then the school announced there will be extra security for Saturday’s game and Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne asked his team’s fans not to wear the school colour of red in order to avoid any trouble.
Trouble was on some people’s minds. Among the students, staff and faculty at Penn State, the pain remained intense, seeing Paterno, 84, the last of those U.S. college coaches whose outsize reputations dwarfed their schools, end his career in disgrace.
After 62 years at Penn State as an assistant and then head coach, two national championships and all sorts of Bowl wins, JoePa, as he was known by fans across Pennsylvania, had the same status as John Wooden, Bear Bryant, Bo Schembechler, Bobby Knight and Woody Hayes. Now he is gone, dismissed in a late-night telephone call.
A lot of those coaches came to similar ends. Knight’s days at Indiana were finished after he assaulted a student. Hayes punched an opposing player at an Ohio State football game. But everyone knew Knight and Hayes were martinets and many of the other coaching legends were remote figures.
Paterno was beloved as a coach and as a man who cared enough about his players to make sure most of them graduated. He was a familiar figure around campus, talking to anyone who stopped him. But he had the messiest end of them all, falling in a sex-abuse scandal because of questions about putting the football program ahead of the welfare of children.
In Pennsylvania, they tell you across this campus in the middle of the state, you are either a supporter of one of the professional teams in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, which form bookends on the southern side of the state, or you worship Penn State.
“When I was a baby, I came home from the hospital in Penn State clothes,” said Christopher Grassi, a graduate law student who was standing among the cluster of tents in front of Beaver Stadium known as Paternoville. They are put up for every home game by students who camp out in order to get the best seats for their general-admission tickets.
The scandal may have planted doubts about fan worship that allows many college football programs to operate as worlds unto themselves but there are few doubts about Paterno.
“Yeah, absolutely, he’s an icon,” Grassi said. “He’s the last of his generation. Even if you don’t like Penn State you’re aware of his presence. He’s done a lot of good things for the state.”
And that’s why even among the traditional adversaries of those coaching gods, the academic faculties, there is ambivalence at worst about Paterno. Bernard Bell is an English professor who describes himself as “not a major supporter of the team.”
Bell said he routinely complains about the lack of resources for his students and wonders if “they would treat Joe this way if he ran out of footballs.”
But in the next breath Bell talks about the millions of dollars Paterno helped raise to build the Paterno Library and that his wife Sue is an important member of the English department. “In terms of contributing to our department, I have nothing disrespectful to say,” Bell said.
Yet outside this town and the area around it known as Happy Valley, an irony played for full effect this week, others wonder about putting the program ahead of children.
Heath Evans is a former NFL fullback who played his college football at Auburn, one of those football factories. Along with his wife Beth, herself a victim of child sexual abuse, Evans formed The Heath Evans Foundation to help child victims. He thinks Penn State should shut down the football program immediately and cancel Saturday’s game.
Evans says the players should be allowed to transfer because they are not the guilty parties but the university should not be allowed to continue to profit from the football program. It should also announce that it will examine its role in the sex scandal and take the appropriate action before reopening the program.
“In the south, we know all about football coaches being gods,” Evans said. “It led to all the problems. Joe was the president, vice-president, the athletic director, he was that school, period.
“The flip side is these football programs create so much revenue these schools thrive off them. They bring so much the coaches are allowed to get away with anything.”