The extraordinary gesture served as the emotional climax to a week unlike any other on this campus, or anywhere else in college athletics. A week after the news broke of a child sex-abuse scandal involving a former Penn State assistant coach, they played football again at Beaver Stadium on Saturday, and it somehow felt both comfortingly familiar and permanently altered.
The Nittany Lions fell, 17-14, to the visiting Cornhuskers — perhaps not surprisingly given the events of the last week — in a clash of Big Ten title contenders, but that was perhaps the least important detail on a day that stood out for other reasons. It was, perhaps most significantly for Penn State fans, the first game without Joe Paterno on the coaching staff since 1949, and the first without him as the head coach since 1965.
“Dad, I wish you were here,” Jay Paterno, the coach’s son and a Penn State assistant said into an ESPN camera after the game, overcome with emotion. “We love you. Thank you.”
Paterno was fired Wednesday by the university’s board of trustees, four days after Jerry Sandusky, his longtime defensive coordinator, was charged with molesting at least eight boys between 1994 and 2009. Two university administrators were charged in an alleged cover-up, and the university president, Graham Spanier, was dismissed by the board.
As Paterno, the winningest coach in NCAA history, presumably watched from his brick, ranch-style home just off campus, virtually all official vestiges of him were scrubbed from Beaver Stadium. Merchandise with his likeness was gone from the kiosks. His name was never mentioned over the public-address system, his likeness shown only fleetingly in highlight reels shown on the video board.
However, even as interim coach Tom Bradley, a loyal Paterno lieutenant, prowled the sideline as his replacement, it was abundantly clear that the man known lovingly as Joe Pa was on the minds of the blue-clad fans who packed the stands.
“Joe Pa — he taught us morals and everything else. This is a way of life. It’s not a place — it’s a family,” said Angela Finelli, wearing a T-shirt with Paterno’s likeness and messages such as “Thanks for the memories / 62 years of great service / We will never forget you, Joe Pa.”