STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Somewhere between the trauma of the previous few days and the uncharted healing process that could take years for the Penn State University community to complete there was Thursday, the first day of the post-Paterno era in Happy Valley. It was a day of gray skies and cold, a day when the raw emotions over the child sex-abuse scandal that has rocked the school’s football team and entire campus turned a corner, from anger to resolve.
The campus awoke Thursday, coffee-clutching and somber, to confront its new reality, one in which, for the first time since 1965, the legendary Joe Paterno is not the head football coach and in which its reputation as an idyllic college town was sullied by overnight scenes of rioting and mayhem in reaction to Paterno’s dismissal.
“I think people woke up and realized life does go on,” said T.J. Bard, president of the student government, after addressing his fellow students. “There is more to this university than Joe Paterno. It’s time to pick up the pieces.”
It was Paterno’s firing late Wednesday night by the university’s Board of Trustees that set off the student protesters, several thousand strong, who tore down lamp posts, turned over a television-news truck and threw rocks and other objects at police — who at one point responded with pepper spray.
“Around campus, it’s just really a solemn atmosphere,” said Kyle Harris, a 21-year-old senior and public relations major. “Our whole world is being shattered.”
Paterno, 84, stayed out of sight of the media Thursday, even as his interim replacement, former defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, held a news conference at Beaver Stadium in which he said he takes over “with mixed emotions.” Both Paterno and Bradley had worked for years with Jerry Sandusky, the longtime Paterno assistant who has been charged with molesting at least eight boys between 1994 and 2009.
“Coach Paterno has meant more to me than anybody except my father,” Bradley said. “Most of you know him as a great football coach. I’ve had the privilege and honor to work for him, spend time with him. He's had such a dynamic impact on so many, so many — I'll say it again — so many people and players’ lives.”
The failure to properly report Sandusky’s alleged crimes led to perjury charges against two top university administrators, as well as, indirectly, the dismissals Wednesday night of Paterno and university President Graham Spanier. But some students still expressed frustration at the lack of firm answers surrounding the university’s role in the scandal.
“People are distrustful,” said Max Michaels, a 20-year-old junior from Gainesville, Fla. “Who knew what, [and] when? Was Paterno’s firing a knee-jerk reaction made by businessmen who were just out to protect their own interests?”
Those answers are not forthcoming. University officials have deflected such questions, citing the legal issues surrounding the case. No firm reason was given for Paterno’s ouster Wednesday night, and at Thursday’s news conference at Beaver Stadium, Bradley refused to answer any questions about Sandusky’s actions, saying he had been advised by counsel.
However, any doubts that football is still king here were put to rest when, just three minutes into Bradley’s news conference, a reporter tossed out the first question about the Nittany Lions’ uncertain quarterback situation. Penn State hosts Nebraska in a clash of Big Ten titans Saturday at Beaver Stadium, in what will be the first Penn State game without Paterno on the coaching staff since 1949.
In one of the last remaining loose ends to be tied up from the fallout from the Sandusky case, Penn State issued a one-sentence statement Thursday night announcing that wide receivers coach Mike McQueary would not attend Saturday’s game because of threats made against him.
It was McQueary who witnessed Sandusky allegedly raping a boy in the showers at Penn State’s locker room in 2002, and reported it to Paterno. Paterno, in turn, reported the incident to athletic department officials. But neither McQueary nor Paterno reported the abuse to police — a fact that gets to the heart of the outrage surrounding the case.
In an early-evening news conference Thursday, which was also short on any hard answers, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett (R) said he supported the Board of Trustees’ decision to oust Paterno and Spanier.
“Their actions,” Corbett said, “caused me to not have confidence in their ability to continue to lead.” He added, “I have seen many instances when people in power believe they are above the law.”
On the Penn State campus, students seemed less interested in rehashing the awful events of the past few days than in moving the university forward. A candlelight vigil for Sandusky’s victims has been scheduled for Friday night, and organizers, hoping it serves as a counterbalance to Wednesday night’s riots, said they expect thousands of students to participate.
“The way we’re being portrayed, it breaks my heart,” said Jessica Sever, a senior from Garnet Valley, Pa., and one of the vigil’s organizers. “We’re among the brightest, proudest, most dedicated students out there. I want people to see that.”
Early Thursday afternoon, Bard, the student government president, flanked by dozens of other student leaders, addressed his fellow students on the steps of Old Main — the iconic Civil War-era building that houses the university administration — and told them, “We are the ones who must restore glory to Penn State.”
The crowd then locked arms and sang the Penn State alma mater, growing louder at the final verse:
“May no act of ours bring shame. . . . Dear old State, dear old State.”
Staff writer Jenna Johnson contributed to this report.