STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — With the Penn State football program embroiled in scandal stemming from sexual abuse charges against a longtime assistant, the professional future of Coach Joe Paterno remained much debated and very much uncertain Tuesday.
Since the release of a grand jury report detailing alleged sexual assaults against boys committed by Paterno’s longtime defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, controversy has engulfed this idyllic campus, and much of the conversation has focused on Paterno, the winningest coach in the history of college football’s highest level and widely regarded as the public face of the university.
Paterno, 84, testified before the grand jury and has not been charged in the case against Sandusky, who was charged with 40 counts of sexually abusing eight children involved in his charity organization. However, at issue is whether Paterno did enough when presented with an eyewitness account of one of the alleged assaults in the showers of the Penn State locker room and to what degree he is responsible for everything that happens in the program over which he has presided for 46 years.
Athletic Director Tim Curley, to whom Paterno relayed the report of the alleged assault, and Gary Schultz, the university’s senior vice president for finance and business, have been charged with failing to notify authorities when told of the alleged assault. Both stepped down from their posts Sunday night. Lawyers for Sandusky, Curley and Schultz have said their clients are innocent of their respective charges.
The New York Times, citing two unnamed sources, reported on its Web site that Penn State officials had begun discussing how to manage the end of Paterno’s tenure as coach. The Associated Press reported that Paterno’s support among members of the university’s board of trustees was “eroding.”
The trustees issued a statement Tuesday night saying it “is outraged by the horrifying details contained in the Grand Jury Report” and promising “swift, decisive action.” The statement also said that at Friday’s regular meeting it would appoint a special committee to investigate the allegations.
On Tuesday morning, when the Harrisburg Patriot-News devoted its entire front page to an editorial calling for university president Graham Spanier to step down and for this to be Paterno’s last season as coach, hundreds of reporters descended on campus to hear the coach answer questions for the first time since the grand jury report was released.
Forty-eight minutes before Paterno’s weekly news conference was scheduled to begin, Jeff Nelson, Penn State’s assistant athletic director for communications, read a statement in front of roughly 150 reporters outside an entrance to Beaver Stadium.
“Due to the ongoing legal circumstances centered around the recent allegations and charges, we have determined that today’s press conference cannot be held and will not be rescheduled,” Nelson said.
Then he tried to walk away, but the media horde followed, allowing him only to inch down the sidewalk as a 1957 matador red Chevy Bel Air drove by with a cardboard cutout of Paterno in the backseat.
The news conference cancellation set off an at times surreal pursuit of Paterno by media members, and the media reports inspired rallies of support for the man who is affectionately known as “JoePa.”
A short distance away from where Nelson made the announcement, dozens of tents were propped up outside the southeast corner of Beaver Stadium. That’s where students camp out in order to obtain top seats for Saturday’s football game. They call the makeshift community “Paternoville.”
Penn State freshman Alyssa Harding has lived in State College her entire life. Her father works for the university. She has so many fond memories of Nittany Lions football and of Paterno. She believes this matter will negatively affect Paterno’s legacy, and she thinks that’s a shame.
“People hear sex scandal at Penn State, and when people think Penn State, they think Joe Paterno,” Harding said. “I just hope he did the right thing, because he is such a great part of Penn State.”
Late Tuesday night, hundreds of Penn State students marched in support of Paterno down College Avenue, the main drag through campus. They cheered, screamed and blocked traffic, on the way to Old Main, the university’s administrative nerve center. At one point, the song ‘Sweet Caroline’ blared from an apartment along the route.
Police in riot gear helped to disperse the crowd, which later moved on toward Beaver Stadium, chanting pro-Paterno and anti-Sandusky messages.
One student held a sign that read: “Occupy McKee Street. We are the 99% that believes JoePa deserves to stay.”
They chanted and cheered to see Paterno, and finally he obliged. Dressed in tan slacks and a light blue sweater, Paterno walked out of his house and onto his lawn. He immediately was swarmed by students and media.
“We want Joe!” the students continued to chant.
“And I want you!” Paterno said. “It’s hard for me to tell you how much this means to me. You guys have lived for this place. I’ve lived for people like you guys and girls. I’m just so happy to see that you feel so strongly about us and about our school. And as I said, I don’t know if you heard me or not, is, you know, the kids who were victims or whatever they want to say, I think we all ought to say a prayer for them. It’s a tough life when people do certain things to you. But anyway, you’ve been great. You’ve been really great.”
“Let Joe stay!” the students chanted.
“We are!” Paterno shouted.
“Penn State!” the crowd responded.