GENE J. PUSKAR/Associated Press
GENE J. PUSKAR/Associated Press
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – They’ve had to reconcile the school whose sports programs vow “success with honor” with one of the worst scandals in sports history.
Almost inconceivably, they have been forced to reconsider the integrity and iconic status of the late Joe Paterno, the longtime football coach whose program helped turn a school focused on agriculture into one of the nation’s biggest and most respected research universities.
In the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal – and a report that said school officials hid accusations against him – the school is bracing for civil lawsuits and perhaps NCAA sanctions. Meanwhile, Penn Staters are trying to protect Happy Valley, the almost-too-good-to-be-true nickname for the campus enclave at the foot of Mount Nittany and the protective veil the community feels in its central Pennsylvania home.
“I think it’s one of the finest universities around and the crimes of a few doesn’t dictate the university’s reputation,” said Craig Lehnowsky, whose son just finished getting three degrees in eight years. “If today was the day to decide where my son would go (to college), he’d be coming here.”
Sandusky, Paterno’s one-time top defensive coach, was charged in November with sexually preying on boys, some on campus, and was convicted last month on 45 charges.
Paterno died of cancer in January and wasn’t charged, but he was fired by trustees days after the Nov. 5 grand jury report came out and Pennsylvania’s state police commissioner said Paterno failed his “moral responsibility” to do more.
On Thursday, former FBI Director Louis Freeh, who was hired by the university’s trustees to investigate, issued a report that said Paterno, former university president Graham Spanier and two other school administrators buried allegations against Sandusky out of a desire to “avoid the consequences of bad publicity.”
Their inaction allowed the retired assistant coach to continue molesting boys, Freeh’s report found.
On Saturday, artist Michael Pilato removed a halo he had added to Paterno’s image on a large mural in State College after the coach died in January. He said he usually puts a halo over one of his subjects when they die, but felt after release of the report that it should be removed in Paterno’s case.
“It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life, but I’m glad I did it,” he said.
Instead, Pilato added a large blue ribbon on Paterno’s lapel symbolizing support for child-abuse victims – an idea he said Paterno endorsed before his death. Pilato earlier removed Sandusky from the mural. He said he hasn’t made a decision about the image of Spanier but will make some kind of change.
“People are doing it for me pretty much – there’s eggs being thrown at him, and different things like that,” he said. “I was thinking about putting a blindfold on him or something.”
Initially, Penn Staters were stunned by the allegations in the grand jury report, especially that it could happen at the place they loved and under the watch of Paterno. Students rioted over Paterno’s firing, and then they held an emotional candlelight vigil in the days afterward to tell victims, and the world, that Penn State was sorry.
Even Thursday, several undergrads – some of them freshmen – cried in the student union while watching the live TV broadcast of Freeh discussing his report at a news conference.
After all these months, many have come to the conclusion that the school is still the same tight-knit, happy place they imagined it to be.
Lauren Shevchek’s sister, an alumna, encouraged her to go to Penn State, even more so after the scandal broke in November with charges against Sandusky.
“The second you walk on campus, you feel right at home,” she said.
Briana Marshall, a junior from East Stroudsburg, Pa., said: “I love this school. This is my dream school. ... There’s so much Penn State has to offer. It’s a bump in the road, but student-wise, we’re still family.”
Others contend that the Happy Valley image is a construct and that the Freeh report confirmed the way Penn State has been run for years: to protect the school at all costs to avoid negative publicity.
“There’s almost a little bit of relief in it for me to see those who have been abusing this power for so long” exposed, said Jennifer Storm, 37. She calls the campus her “second home” but remembers feeling like the school didn’t do enough when black students and gay students, including herself, received death threats in 2001.
Blue ribbons and fundraising jars for child abuse awareness have sprung up around town and school leaders say they are taking aggressive steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Shevchek, 18, said she believes no such crime will ever happen again at Penn State – or any other college, for that matter.
But Penn Staters have also tired of the scandal, and the media’s treatment of the school and Paterno.
It’s “tedious,” Marshall said.
The actions of a few should not define the rest, they repeatedly say. Then there’s the damage to the school’s reputation some worry about.
What will prospective employers think when they see Penn State on the resume? What about the scorn they’ll get from strangers for wearing a Penn State sweatshirt in another part of the country?
Then they worry about the NCAA punishing their beloved football program, or even shutting it down.
Penn Staters also want to move on.
“It’s a new coach, it’s a new team,” said Christian Beveridge, 40, a masonry restoration worker who grew up near the campus and was working on a building there Thursday. “We’re going to keep on going.”