Penn State scandal: School still recovering from traumatic week

November 11, 2011

Friday, Nov. 4, was the last day anything felt normal around Penn State University. A quiet weekend was taking shape, that Saturday being the only one all fall without a football game. With his Nittany Lions idle, Joe Paterno, the legendary 84-year-old head coach and patriarch, held practice at 6:30 a.m., so his players could make an early getaway on a rare in-season furlough.

But as the football team took a break from its pursuit of a Big Ten Conference title, the weekend was anything but quiet at State College. On Friday afternoon, a seismic upheaval arrived on the Web site of a local newspaper — a grand-jury indictment, unspeakable crimes, an alleged cover-up — and nothing at Penn State has been the same since.

The child sex-abuse scandal involving a longtime Paterno lieutenant cost Paterno his job, along with those of the university president and two top administrators, and set forth a torrent of emotions, manifested in extremes — from ugly riots to somber candlelight vigils, from vitriol directed toward the media to an examination directed inward. It was all in hopes of explaining how and why such a thing could have happened in an idyllic community known as Happy Valley.

The scandal has exploded nationally, prompting universal questions of economics (has big-time college football become too lucrative and too corrupt to contain?), sociology (how could a child-predator have fooled so many people for so long?), philosophy (how far does one’s duty extend to stop and report a criminal act?) and, of course, law.

Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State defensive coordinator charged with molesting at least eight boys between 1994-2009, is free on $100,000 bail and awaiting his first hearing Dec. 7. Through an attorney, he has maintained his innocence.

But on this particular campus, as the Nittany Lions prepare to take the field again Saturday against visiting Nebraska — the school’s first game since 1949 without Paterno on the coaching staff — the biggest question facing everyone is simple: How do we recover and move on from this?

“Moving forward is the only responsible course to take in the coming months,” said interim university president Rodney Erickson. “This is a terrible tragedy for everyone involved, and it will take some time to bring a measure of understanding and resolution to the community.”

A whirlwind arrives

On that Friday morning a week ago, callers to Jeff Byers’s daily sports-talk show on radio station WRSE in State College were debating Penn State’s uncertain quarterback situation, with a few dreamers wondering if the Nittany Lions could make a stealth run at a national title.

“The town was buzzing about what was going to happen in those last three games after the bye week,” Byers said. “Nobody was prepared for what was about to come crashing down.”

It came crashing down at 2:26 that afternoon, when the story hit the Web site of the Patriot-News of Harrisburg, Pa.: Sandusky, who at one time had been considered Paterno’s likely successor as head coach, had been indicted on 40 sex-crime charges. Two top university officials, athletic director Tim Curley and senior vice president for finance Gary Schultz, were charged with perjury and with failing to properly report the crimes to authorities.

All of a sudden, what was supposed to have been a quiet weekend in State College was about to turn into a whirlwind that a week later has not stopped spinning.

Within the grand jury’s findings was this nugget: In 2002, a graduate assistant coach — later identified as Mike McQueary, now the team’s wide receivers coach — witnessed Sandusky allegedly raping a boy, estimated to be 10 years old, in the showers of Penn State’s locker room. McQueary told Paterno — though the accounts of McQueary and Paterno to the grand jury differed as to how much detail was given — and Paterno told Curley and Schultz, who, in turn, reported it to university president Graham Spanier.

None took the allegations to police.

By the end of the week, Curley would be placed on administrative leave; Schultz would step down; Paterno and Spanier would be ousted by the university’s Board of Trustees; and McQueary, as of Friday, was placed on administrative leave.

But none of those things happened immediately. It was a day later, Nov. 5, before the university addressed the indictment. In a statement, Spanier called the allegations against Sandusky “troubling,” but — in a sentence that would serve as a flash-point for angry students — he gave his unconditional support to Curley and Schultz, saying, “I have complete confidence in how they handled the allegations.”

It was Sunday before Paterno was heard from, releasing a statement through his son, Scott, saying if the allegations against Sandusky were true, “we were all fooled, along with scores of professionals trained in such things.” Paterno also asserted that McQueary “at no time related to me the very specific actions contained in the grand jury report.”

On Monday morning, Byers, who said he grew up three doors down from the Sandusky home, opened his WRSE sports-talk show by saying: “This is going to be a week unlike any other in the history of Penn State football and this whole community. But we’re going to work through it together, just as you are.”

The end comes for Paterno

As the nation came out of its weekly, 48-hour football coma, major media outlets started dispatching columnists, commentators, reporters and cameramen to State College, and the outcry for Paterno to resign, or be dismissed, intensified.

That sentiment was bolstered when Pennsylvania police commissioner Frank Noonan — while acknowledging Paterno had fulfilled his legal obligation to report what he knew to his superiors — also questioned whether Paterno had a moral obligation to go to the authorities.

But locally, where Paterno held what some have called a “god-like” presence, that sentiment was met with derision and scorn, and an outpouring of support for the man known as “Joe Pa.”

“This town is so tight-knit and insular that when the outsiders come in, with all these columnists implicating Paterno, a lot of people equated that with an attack on their own father,” said Ben Goldberg-Morse, a senior journalism major from Bala Cynwyd, Pa. “We get defensive. We retreat a little bit, put our shields up and say, ‘Hey, wait just a minute. This is our guy. We have to support him.’ Whether that’s right or wrong is up for debate.”

On Tuesday, Paterno intended to address the situation during his weekly news conference, drawing a media pack several times larger than normal, but university officials abruptly canceled it.

That night, in a surreal scene, Paterno

addressed a crowd of some 400 students that had gathered – chanting his name — on the front lawn of his modest, brick, ranch-style home just off campus.

“I’m just so happy to see that you feel so strongly about us and about our school,” Paterno told them. “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.

Paterno then led the crowd in the ubiquitous chant: “We are!” he shouted.

“Penn State!” the crowd responded.

The following day, Paterno announced in a statement that he would retire at the end of this season, his 46th as head coach. The Sandusky scandal, he said, was “one of the great sorrows of my life.”

The statement contained one other thought, which some immediately interpreted as a challenge to the authority of the Board of Trustees: The board, Paterno said, “should not spend a single minute discussing my status. They have far more important matters to address.”

The board gave its answer some nine hours later, with vice chairman John Surma declaring in a staccato voice, “Joe Paterno is no longer the head football coach, effective immediately.” A hushed conference room, packed with media members and curious onlookers, soon exploded in gasps, shrieks and indignantly shouted questions.

Ready to begin healing

It had taken a little more than five days, from the Patriot-News report to the Board of Trustees’ announcement, for Paterno to go down. But his firing, however cathartic, was the continental divide in the emotional week — with everything that followed, good or bad, a part of the healing process that had begun at that moment.

Several thousand students gathered that night in the streets lining the campus, their protests over Paterno’s ouster eventually growing violent, with lamp posts toppled and a television-news truck overturned, until police wielding pepper-spray finally subdued the crowd in the wee hours of Thursday morning.

But by the time the bells of Old Main rang for the start of class Thursday, the streets were largely cleaned up and a solemn calm had fallen over the campus. Later that morning, former defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, named interim head coach the night before, held his first news conference as Paterno’s successor, deftly deflecting questions about the investigation while striking the proper tone of reverence for Paterno and resolve for the rest of the season.

Friday night, in what amounted to a peaceful counterbalance to the riots two days earlier, thousands of students were expected at a candlelight vigil at Old Main.

By that point, the RV parking lots around Beaver Stadium were filling up with overnight tailgaters, and ticket-scalpers were doing heavy business along College Avenue.

It was the coldest night of the week. It felt like football weather.

Staff researchers Lucy Shackleford and Julie Tate and staff writer Steve Yanda contributed to this report.

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