STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – On Saturday morning, Penn State University immersed itself in the comforting rituals of football, in hopes that the familiar symbols and traditions would bring a sense of normalcy at the end of a week that was anything but normal.
Clip-on Nittany Lions flags flew from the cars lined up bumper-to-bumper along Route 26 into Happy Valley. In the sprawling grass parking lots surrounding Beaver Stadium, tents were being erected, blue-and-white tablecloths were being stretched across fold-up tables and charcoal grills were being lit. At any one moment, in any direction, there was at least one football being tossed in the air.
But everywhere, there was a strange emotional undercurrent – a mixture of sadness and pride, anticipation and worry. This would be Penn State’s first game since news broke of a child sex-abuse scandal involving a longtime Nittany Lions assistant coach, and the first game here since 1949 in which legendary coach Joe Paterno was not part of the coaching staff.
Paterno, 84, was fired Wednesday by the school’s Board of Trustees in the fallout from the scandal, in which his longtime defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was arrested on charges of molesting at least eight boys between 1994-2009, and two university administrators were charged in an alleged cover-up.
In the Purple Lot, where the spaces are numbered individually, Rob Tribeck of Harrisburg arrived at 6 a.m. with a group of about a dozen friends and family members, and began setting up their tailgate in spot No. 8515. Prominently displayed in the middle of the site was a life-size cut-out of Paterno.
“Joe has been traveling with us for years,” Tribeck said. “We felt bringing him today was necessary.” Asked about the prospect of someone other than Paterno leading the Nittany Lions out of the tunnel for the noon kickoff against Nebraska, Tribeck took a good long moment before answering.
“It’s certainly going to be a somber moment,” he said. “We all knew this day would come – but no one thought it would come today, and certainly no one every imagined it would come like this.”
Outside Gate F, an orderly line – including a handful of Nebraska fans in their glaring red -- stood waiting for a turn to pose for photographs alongside the bronze statue of Paterno. On a stone wall behind the statue was a quote from the iconic coach: “They ask me what I’d like written about me when I’m gone. I hope they write I made Penn State a better place, not just that I was a good football coach.”
By 10 a.m., students began filling in the seats behind the north end zone. A banner was draped over the railing near the corner of the end zone, with a poignant alteration of a ubiquitous Happy Valley chant: “WE STILL ARE PENN STATE” – the extra word, “still,” emphasized in orange.
Nobody knew exactly how the afternoon was going to unfold, given the roiling emotions of the week, which had already seen a riot just off campus Wednesday night by several thousand students protesting Paterno’s firing, and a student-led candlelight vigil Friday night.
The university received at least one bomb threat Friday night, according to an official news release, and police used bomb-sniffing dogs and other security measures before concluding it was a hoax. Still, hundreds of extra police officers, on bicycles, on foot and in cruisers, kept watch over the stadium and its parking lots.