On Nov. 21, 2004, Penn State president Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley and other university officials paid a visit to the home of Joe Paterno, then 77 years old, to discuss an exit strategy for the Nittany Lions' coach. This was the day after Penn State completed its fourth losing season in five years. The administrators left without having moved Paterno an inch closer to retirement. The coach essentially sent them away with the message, "You guys are overreacting. We'll be fine." The next year Paterno bought himself more of his two most copious assets—time and trust—with an 11-win season in which his team came within a last-second play of his sixth undefeated season. The man and the school were, by perception, reality and especially Paterno's choice, inseparable.
In name and influence, Paterno recalls the title the ancient Romans gave to the man who held authority over the property and persons of an extended family: paterfamilias. As a Penn State graduate, benefactor, father of a current student and someone with longtime personal ties to the football staff, I am part of the Penn State family—a family devastated to know it harbored the worst scandal in college sports history.
That word, family, may sound misplaced in reference to a world-class university of 90,000 students and more than half a million alumni. But Penn State is, for its size, a surprisingly tight-knit community, one bound in part by the values Paterno represented over more than four decades as head coach. Today that family is bound also by grief and sadness for the victims of the sexual abuse that prosecutors charge was inflicted by former assistant Jerry Sandusky, a Paterno confidant thought to be a pillar of the program and the community. The alleged crimes are so horrific as to make one wonder what justice could possibly be swift and appropriate enough.
The coverage of the story quickly turned from the accused perpetrator to Paterno himself and, tellingly less so, the school's administration. Battalions of television trucks and vans found their way, probably with GPS help, through the wilds and hills of central Pennsylvania to the leafy idyll that is State College. Part of what makes Penn State so special is its very geography, affording as it does an immersive college experience. Back in 1981, Alabama coach Bear Bryant complained to Paterno about the difficulty of getting to Penn State via a two-lane road from Harrisburg. Paterno responded there was nothing he could do about it. "Well, Joe," Bryant said, "if I wanted a road replaced in Alabama, the governor would do it if he still wanted to be the governor."
The access roads and University Park airport have been expanded since, but life inside Happy Valley remains endearingly unchanged while the school has grown into one of the nation's great public universities. The Wall Street Journal ranked Penn State grads as among the most sought-after by top corporate recruiters. The university has more Fulbright scholars on its faculty than any other school in the country. Last spring Penn State's annual dance marathon raised $9.5 million for childhood cancer care and research, making it the largest student-run philanthropy in the world. Penn State pride is real and well-earned.
How then to reconcile the school I know and the Paterno I know with the unspeakable alleged crimes of Sandusky on their watch? It is a painful and ongoing process, as more answers are due about how and why no one connected the dots to Sandusky's purported evil and stopped it. Paterno himself said in a statement just before his firing, "In hindsight I wish I had done more."
In sorting through the debris, I noticed that Bradley and new president Rodney Erickson used the same word: transparency, as in an e-mail Erickson sent to the Penn State community last Friday: "I am outlining my promise to the Penn State community, which includes the naming of an ethics officer and a commitment to transparency as the University moves forward."
The idyllic physical setting and the familial spirit of Penn State cut another way: It is a deeply insular place with concentrated power. Every character in the tragedy seemed to be a longtime Penn Stater. Paterno was there 61 years; Sandusky's association with the school began in 1963; Curley grew up in State College and has served 18 years as AD; vice president Gary Schultz served the school for 40 years; Mike McQueary grew up in State College and has been on staff for 11 years; Bradley has been on staff for 33 years; Jay Paterno, Joe's son, has been on staff for 17 years; Spanier taught at Penn State as far back as 1973. Sandusky, Bradley, Curley, Schultz, McQueary and Jay Paterno all attended Penn State as undergraduates. That people returned to or stayed so long at Penn State spoke to its appeal and its small-town values.
A world-class institution operating with such values is, in the main, overwhelmingly positive. After the worst five days in school history, the shocked Penn State family found its equilibrium in a candlelight vigil for the victims last Friday night, which brought the attention back to what was most important. The football game the next day, the first without Paterno on staff since Nov. 19, 1949, provided a place to gather with sorrow and hope. The 109,000 fans, most clad in blue to honor abuse victims, mourned the loss of innocence. There was a powerful minute of dead quiet for the victims, and a noticeably loud, heartfelt singing of the alma mater, including the line, "May no act of ours bring shame."
Afterward Jay Paterno, as his father had done so often, walked back to the familiar house on McKee Street. The sun was low in the sky, saturating the last golden colors of fall that clung to the trees. Down Park he walked, stopping to buy homemade brownies from a sidewalk stand, announcing himself only with a rustle as he kicked his way through the leaves already surrendered to the approaching winter. Given the school's need to put behind it everything related to Sandusky, it well might have been his last walk home from a game.