When Brian Gaia committed to play football at Penn State in May 2011, Joe Paterno was the iconic head coach and the team had a pristine image as a place where young men went to compete for championships, succeed in the classroom and emerge four years later as upstanding citizens.
Fourteen months later, as Gaia, an offensive lineman from the Gilman School in Baltimore, takes summer courses in State College, Pa., and prepares for his freshman season, the school’s storied football program is in tatters. On Monday, it was hit with some of the most severe penalties the NCAA has ever administered in the wake of a child sex-abuse scandal involving a former assistant coach.
For dozens of Penn State players and recruits, the question is whether to stay with a wounded program that will be unable to compete for bowl games or conference championships for the next four years — and where even the legacy of the late Paterno is no longer an asset — or whether to seek a new school.
“Brian is staying at Penn State. He committed to the program and he hasn’t changed his mind — at least not yet,” said Tim Gaia, Brian’s father, in a telephone interview Monday. “I don’t think he knows for certain. I talked with him for about five minutes this morning, then he had to go to a meeting and then classes. I haven’t been able to pick his brain and see what he thinks.
“If there’s anybody who wouldn’t be struggling with what happened today, there’s something wrong. It’s got to be on their mind. How can anybody make an educated analysis of the situation when this has never happened before?”
On Monday, when the NCAA handed down its unprecedented sanctions — which included a $60 million fine, a five-year probation period, a reduction in scholarships and the erasing of 112 wins from 1998 to 2011 — Penn State issued a gag order to its football players, barring them from speaking to the media.
Elsewhere, phone lines were humming. Rival coaches used the news as an opportunity to try to poach players from Penn State’s roster. Gaithersburg High Coach Kreg Kephart said he had fielded three calls before 10 a.m. from college coaches wondering if Sean Stanley, a Gaithersburg graduate who will be a senior defensive end at Penn State this season, might want to transfer for his final year of eligibility.
“Sharks smell blood in the water, and they go,” Kephart said.
Most of Penn State’s players chose the school long before news broke last November about the arrest of longtime Paterno assistant Jerry Sandusky on child sex-abuse charges. Back then, Paterno held unquestioned moral authority as the patriarch of one of the cleanest football programs in the country.
To stay at Penn State now is to accept that that image is gone, but also to certify that Penn State is bigger than football and that loyalty means at least as much as winning championships.
“It’s been a really tough year to watch from the inside, because there’s been so much unpredictability about what’s coming next,” said Christine Zanellato, whose son, Matt, redshirted last year and will play as a freshman in 2012. “Not to minimize this tragedy and this situation, because what happened to [Sandusky’s] victims is horrendous thing, but it’s been a tough thing to see happen.”
Zanellato said her son is “fully committed” to staying at Penn State. “He loves the school and he loves the program. He’s going into his sophomore [academic] year with 40 credits and a 3.0 [grade point average]. As a parent, you can’t hope for anything better than that.”
For Tim Gaia, it was the handling of the fallout by new Coach Bill O’Brien that has resonated most during last few weeks. O’Brien, a former New England Patriots assistant coach, was hired in January.
“Brian has truly bought into the message and the passion that Coach O’Brien and his staff have put into the program,” Gaia said. “From my perspective, they’ve been outstanding. You couldn’t ask for better people.”