The earthly remains of Joe Paterno lie six feet beneath a small, rectangular slab of granite sunk into soft ground at the northeast boundary of Spring Creek Presbyterian Cemetery in State College, Pa., a place often called Happy Valley, though less often lately than a few years ago. The gravesite is uncommonly modest for a man once so famous. There is just the simple stone engraved with Paterno’s name and that of his wife, Sue, who is still living; and with a line written by 19th-century British poet Robert Browning that Paterno liked: Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for? Nearly every marker in the cemetery, including some nearly two centuries old, is larger than Paterno’s. The cemetery is across from a golf course, which some find odd because Paterno had no use for the game; and it has a nice view of Mount Nittany in the autumn, which nearly everyone finds appropriate in some fashion, some more poignant than others.
The marker is surrounded by devotional trinkets related to Penn State football in general or Paterno in particular: A blue-and-white pom-pom, a small stuffed bear, a sign that reads, “Here Lies the Heart of the Lions.” In this way, Paterno’s resting place is much like the man himself in life -- so simple (high-water khaki pants, horn-rimmed glasses and those unadorned uniforms his teams always wore) that the simplicity becomes ostentatious. His burial place becomes large by being small. Regardless, the location was chosen hurriedly and only at the last minute. “Right near the end [Paterno died on Jan. 20, 2012],” says Paterno’s oldest son, Jay, “I asked my mother, ‘Mom, where is the plot?’ She said, ‘We don’t have a plot. Your father and I didn’t think this day would ever come.’ I said, ‘Mom, I admire your optimism, but we’re going to need a plot.’ I think it’s a place Joe would love. It’s three blocks from campus. It’s accessible, the way Joe was accessible. It’s just right, I think.”
For many years, whenever I visited Penn State to write about football success -- or failure -- I would seek a midweek audience with Paterno. Usually this would take place after lunch and before practice and as the seasons passed, it was increasingly less likely that these interactions would result in publishable material. The sessions were sometimes entertaining and sometimes prickly, because while Paterno could be charming, he was no slouch at condescension. In 1997, I had testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee making an early, abortive foray into re-making the college bowl system. I was proud of this bucket list service. Paterno thought it was just about the funniest thing he had never seen: A sportswriter talking about his sport’s problems on C-SPAN.
Back to the central point: If you went to State College to write about football, you saw Paterno if at all possible, because if not for Paterno, you wouldn’t be there in the first place. Nor would the stadium, the [Paterno] library or many of the shops on College Avenue (especially those that sold, and continue to sell, products featuring Paterno’s name or likeness). Maybe someone else would have built this football power in the fields of central Pennsylvania, but it was Paterno who actually did. It wasn’t deification to visit Paterno in those days; it was reportorial common sense. Everything is wildly different now, not least that I visit Paterno not in an office, but in a small, cold graveyard late on a fall afternoon. But it is Paterno who made Penn State nearly too big to fail and Paterno whose lifetime of pious declarations made the scandal that ended his career (and altered his legacy) more sensational than had it been any other coach. And it is Paterno, 33 months in the ground, who continues to frame much of Penn State’s pursuit of a new beginning, both for those who wish him redeemed and for those who wish him forgotten.
Nearly three years have passed since the Sandusky scandal broke. A third football season is underway, with a second coach since Paterno, and the undermanned Nittany Lions will lug a two-game Big Ten losing streak into Saturday’s home game against Ohio State. Still, the scandal endures as one of the most shocking and destructive events in the history of college sports. The bold-line items of that scandal are ever familiar: During one week in early November 2011, former Penn State assistant coach and one-time Paterno defensive lieutenant Jerry Sandusky was arrested and charged with years of sex crimes against young boys, some occurring on the Penn State campus; the college’s athletic director and another department employee were charged with perjury relating to allegedly covering up those crimes; and both Paterno and university president Graham Spanier were fired (and later accused of complicity in the cover-up). Within eight months, Paterno was dead, Sandusky convicted and jailed for the rest of his life and Louis Freeh, the former FBI director hired by Penn State (and paid $8.2 million) to investigate the scandal, had issued a scathing condemnation of the university and repeatedly invoked the word “culture” to describe a college that had sold its conscience in exchange for football’s money. Swiftly the NCAA took the unprecedented step of levying crippling sanctions against the Penn State football program without the involvement of its enforcement division: A $60 million fine, four-year bowl ban, scholarship reductions and forfeiture of all wins from 1998-2011, reducing Paterno’s NCAA record from 409 wins to 298. Penn State interim president Rodney Erickson immediately signed off on all of this because it wasn’t the death penalty. Concurrently, Spanier was indicted.
After all of this, the nation’s media left State College in the summer of 2012 -- as the nation’s media will do when a story loses its legs -- before returning briefly to document the start of the ’12 football season and then decamping for good. But while the scandal cooled, it has never really ended. It rears its head when Penn State fans travel to a September game at Rutgers, where a sign hangs from a fraternity railing calling their school of 45,000 students and more than 600,000 alumni PED STATE. Or when Penn State senior Zach Berger, 22, from Woodcliff Lake, N.J., is walking around New York City in a Penn State T-shirt and hears someone shout, “Penn State? You mean State Penn?” It is the type of language that Penn State students say they hear frequently.
In early October, I was five minutes late to an interview with R. Scott Kretchmar, an ethicist and professor of exercise and sport science who has been at Penn State for three decades and from 2000-11 served as the school’s NCAA faculty athletics representative. “Did you have trouble getting into the building?’’ asked Kretchmar from behind his desk on the second floor of the Recreation Building. “We’re spending $5 million to secure this building, even though Jerry Sandusky would have had a key to swipe himself in.”
In a much broader sense, a divide has developed between those in the Penn State community who favor moving on from Sandusky, Freeh and Emmert (which is essentially what Erickson agreed to when he signed the NCAA’s consent decree in July 2012), having swallowed their punishment, and those who would challenge the assertions in the Freeh Report and all that resulted from it. Chief among this group is Penn State alumni trustee Al Lord, the former CEO of Sallie Mae, who is urging the Penn State board of trustees to undertake an examination of the Freeh Report. “People were sacrificed to make nice with the NCAA gurus and the guy with the driving problem in Vermont,’’ says Lord, the latter phrasing a reference to the Aug. 25 incident in which Freeh crashed his SUV into a tree near his vacation home in Vermont and was seriously injured. “I don’t think anyone is going to forget this chapter in Penn State history, but this is about the reputation and culture of the university. I believe the Freeh Report is incomplete and that we should do a complete review.” Last week, however, a Penn State student government association voted against any reopening of the Freeh Report, symbolizing those who would move on and underscoring the divide.
Lord’s quest is not the first challenge to the Freeh Report. A report commissioned by the Paterno family and released last February assails many of Freeh’s findings. Former Pennsylvania governor and U.S. attorney general Dick Thornburgh says in that report, "There was just a rush to injustice. In the case of Mr. Paterno, that injustice was palpable."
Parties who side with Lord and the Paterno family would also say that recent events suggest a shift in the original narrative, which was that Penn State became obsessed with football success, allowed Paterno to become too powerful and wound up harboring a serial child molester in order to avoid bad publicity that might have hurt the money-making prospects of the program. But one year ago, in the fall of 2013, the NCAA began softening Penn State’s sanctions by restoring some of the scholarships taken away one year earlier. This despite no mention in the ’12 consent decree that sanctions might be reduced and a threat that they could be increased, “… if [Penn State] does not adhere to these requirements or violates NCAA rules in any sport during this (probationary) time period.” Then on Sept. 8 of this year, the NCAA restored Penn State to full scholarship status and lifted the bowl ban entirely. In its announcement, the NCAA credited Penn State’s compliance with the conditions of the Freeh Report, as monitored by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, but some in the Penn State community are skeptical about that stated reasoning.
“They say we made progress, that we were a good prisoner and we got our sentence reduced,” says John Nichols, professor emeritus from Penn State’s college of communications and a former chairman of the university’s faculty senate. “That’s a cover story. The real truth is that almost everybody knows the NCAA sanctions were a serious mistake. Certainly we appreciate having our sentence reduced, but at the same time, we were falsely jailed.”
Yet however the Freeh Report is interpreted or challenged, and regardless of how many counter reports are commissioned, Paterno’s own words, on the day of his resignation, continue strident. “This is a tragedy,” Paterno said on Nov. 9, 2011. “It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.” Attempts to clear his name will likely continue unabated, most recently Jay Paterno’s book, Paterno Legacy: Enduring Lessons From the Life and Death of my Father, published in September.
On the day the sanctions were reduced, hundreds of Penn State students gathered at Old Main, the university’s primary administration building at the center of campus. That evening and into the following days, scenes from their impromptu party were posted on numerous sports websites. Among the chants were “Where’s The Statue?” in reference to the Paterno statue that had been removed from Beaver Stadium and “4-0-9,” in reference to Paterno’s victory total. The students were derided by many media as clueless Paterno apologists, but that’s a simplistic reaction. Penn State seniors, the only students who were on campus when Paterno was coaching, have spent nearly three years living in the shadow of the Sandusky scandal and sanctions that diminished a football program that they hoped would be a significant part of their undergraduate experience. (And in fact, for many of them, it was, though not in the ways they had expected).
“That night was not about Joe Paterno,” says senior Tim Gilbert, 21, of Philadelphia, the managing editor of OnwardState.com, who was at the demonstration. “That was about, ‘Holy crap, we’re playing in a bowl game.’ So one kid starts chanting 4-0-9 and who’s going to stop it? Some students are sympathetic to Paterno and some students aren’t. That night we were just celebrating.”
Fellow senior Alex Robinson of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, says, “Obviously not everybody agreed with the sanctions in the first place, but we all tried to embrace the fact that they were there and make the best of it. But once they were lifted and the scholarships are back and the bowl ban is gone. It was like we finally caught a break.”
Penn State’s new coach, James Franklin, sits at a conference table in the second-floor office at the northeast corner of the Lasch Family Football Building. It is the same office where Paterno last worked and the same building where former Penn State quarterback and then-graduate assistant coach Mike McQueary saw Sandusky in the shower with a young boy and heard what he would later describe as “rhythmic slapping sounds.” When Franklin, 42, was hired last December to replace Bill O’Brien as Penn State’s head football coach, he also secured the promise of $2 million in improvements to the facility, but does not include the exorcism of ghosts. And Franklin knows this. When asked how often the events of the last three years come up in recruiting players, Franklin says, “Every time.”
Paterno was replaced by O’Brien, a former New England Patriots assistant who coached the Nittany Lions to 15 wins in two years, including eight during the restorative 2012 season that many Penn State fans recall as uniquely satisfying. When O’Brien left last December to coach the Houston Texans, Franklin was hired from Vanderbilt, where he had built the perennial SEC doormat Commodores to respectability. Franklin rose to the highest level of college football through the sport’s back alleys, with stops at East Stroudsburg (where he had been a Division II quarterback), James Madison, Washington State and Idaho State. His big break was in getting to Maryland in 2000. “I had no network,” says Franklin. “No connections.” He gives off a restless energy, even while sitting still, and keeps his watch set 15 minutes fast, lest he risk missing an appointment. He encourages his players to be active on social media, and sometimes responds to their tweets.
He brought baggage from Nashville. Four of his players were charged with rape in a June 2013 incident and lawyers for one of the accused players claim that Franklin contacted the victim four days after the incident. When asked if he felt he would emerge unscathed from that event, Franklin told Sports Illustrated, “Yes. But I can’t say anything more, because it’s an ongoing deal.” Four days later while testifying via Skype, Franklin said that he had never seen a cellphone video of the rape, but admitted having told players that he had seen the video, in order to not “water down” a message to his players.
Upon Franklin’s hiring, an early narrative arose that because he was raised in Pennsylvania (in the Philadelphia suburb of Langhorne), he had always dreamed of coaching at Penn State. Now he bristles at that tale, and at any suggestion that the Penn State program belongs to his forebears. “You’re aware that Joe was here for a long time,” says Franklin. “And we’ve been unbelievably respectful to the history and tradition. But I would never try to be someone else. And we’ve got to do what’s best to keep Penn State moving forward.”
Yet he commands a uniquely transitional roster, including 13 fourth- and fifth-year seniors and eight fourth-year juniors who will be the last players to have played for Paterno in his 61 years on campus. By the start of the 2016 season, none will remain.
Among the seniors is Mike Hull, a linebacker and the current team’s leading tackler. Hull’s father, Tom, and uncle, John, both played for Paterno in the 1970s. Mike was introduced to Paterno after practice on the day before a routine victory over Bowling Green in 1998; he was seven years old. Andrew Nelson, a redshirt freshman currently starting at offensive tackle, grew up in Hershey and made one pilgrimage every year to Beaver Stadium, when his father would buy single game tickets in the upper rows of the giant structure. Sam Ficken, an Indiana high school soccer player-turned-placekicker, was recruited late by Penn State and ate dinner with Paterno on his official visit. “The word I would use is charismatic,” says Ficken. “He was on top of things. Honestly, I was surprised. It was pretty impressive.”
Hull and Ficken were among those in the room on Nov. 9, 2011, when Paterno presided over his final squad meeting, approximately 12 hours before he was fired by the university’s board of trustees. Senior running back Bill Belton was there, too. “One of saddest moments I’ve ever experienced,” says Belton. “But he did say we would all remain brothers, and we have remained brothers.” Franklin sees these players every day.
He also sees those who chose to walk into the face of the sanctions and attempt to help rebuild the program, like redshirt freshman wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton, the son of two U.S. Marines who listened as rival coaches told him Penn State would never recover from the crushing sanctions. And like true sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who in 2013 became one of the most accomplished freshmen in the history of the program, with 2,955 yards passing and 20 touchdowns, and who threw for 339 yards and four scores in a season-ending 31-24 upset of Wisconsin in Camp Randall Stadium.
But Hackenberg has also felt the program’s recovery pains more than most. Scholarship reductions thinned the Penn State offensive line to the point where two defensive linemen were shifted to offense before the season and, according to Franklin, the program has just one recruited offensive lineman in the sophomore, junior and senior classes. Hackenberg has been sacked 20 times in six games and pressured incessantly, resulting in seven interceptions and just five touchdown passes. In an 18-13 loss to Michigan, Hackenberg averaged just five yards per attempt and was sacked six times. Behind all this, Hackenberg makes no secret that he came to Penn State to learn from O’Brien. “Coach Franklin’s [offensive] system is more of a college system,” says Hackenberg. “Coach O’Brien’s system was upper-level, as pro as they get. I had free reign at the line of scrimmage.”
Even with the lifting of sanctions, Penn State won’t accumulate sufficient depth and talent over night. Currently 24 of the program’s 64 recruited scholarship players are true freshman. “Right now we have guys who are starters and they know we don’t have anybody behind them to put in the game if they aren’t performing,” says Franklin. “The kids behind them are great kids, but not great players. And we won’t have a full 85 [recruited players] for two more years.”
The rest of the program’s -- and the university’s -- recovery will surely take longer. There are no fewer than seven civil and criminal lawsuits connected in some way to the Sandusky scandal, not including the defamation suit that Lord says he is assisting Spanier in potentially filing against Freeh. All of them are awaiting trial or settlement, a process that will surely take years.
Franklin arrives at work those 15 minutes early every morning knowing that his position, iconic in title (Penn State football coach) is forever changed. “This will never be a normal job again,” he says. “Every school in the country is different because of what happened here. Policies and procedures have been in place, and that’s good. And we’re more changed than all of them.” Yet on the streets of State College are freshmen students who were 14 years old when the storm hit. “Over the summer I was riding in a car with a girl who was coming here this year, a rising freshman,” says Gilbert, the senior student. “I asked her if she knew what the Freeh Report was. She had no idea. Now, that’s a small sample, but still…”
John Nichols, who has been at Penn State since five years before Joe Paterno won his first national title in 1982, awaits the return of his grown children on weekends so that they can tailgate at Beaver Stadium, throw a football in the parking lot and watch a game from the family seats. Paterno’s Penn State did -- or did not -- become too obsessed with victory, money and image. But for fans in Happy Valley and many other college towns, sport is a communal gathering with family and friends. They want their Saturdays back.
Yet from his office above an old gymnasium, Scott Kretchmar, the ethicist, professor and former faculty athletics rep, surveys a campus still left bleeding. “We’re too close to this to put it in perspective,” says Kretchmar. “Time needs to pass. Wounds need to heal.” Outside, leaves drop from the highest limbs of tall trees, a reminder of autumns past, games played and a scandal unlike any other.