STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Two weeks back, on a beautiful autumn afternoon, with the weakening sun filtering through the leaves in the center of the Penn State campus, life felt, if not blissfully unaware then proudly unaffected.
Just hours earlier and just miles away in the county seat of Bellefonte, Jerry Sandusky was sentenced to at least 30 years in prison for sexually abusing 10 kids over a 15-year period, with many of the acts occurring right here on this campus.
The revelation, made public in November 2011 in a grand jury presentment, spun this place into crisis. Shock turned to outrage. The media descended. Three administrators and iconic coach Joe Paterno were removed from duty within days. Candlelight vigils and street protests were staged.
This afternoon was different. Sandusky was gone and if not forgotten – the vow for awareness remains – then appropriately brushed aside. There were more important things to do. Kids darted into buildings to attend a late class. Others wasted time throwing Frisbees near where professors held small discussions out on the grass. Many bustled around the Paterno Library, an undeniably impressive place, or simply went for a jog.
Down the hill, in the little downtown, talk centered on the likable football program that was still churning, 4-2 then, 5-2 now, and on the edge of the AP rankings. The Nittany Lions host Ohio State (8-0) Saturday in what may be the biggest game in the Big Ten this year, even if neither is eligible for the league title. The focus a big football game can create, returns.
Penn State, with 44,000 undergrads alone here in State College, was always bigger than Joe Paterno, even if that wasn’t the way it was portrayed publicly or even believed privately by everyone from top administrators to part-time janitors who feared challenging the program. They were wrong though. Football may have run certain egos or cast unfortunate fear down through the staff, but it never was the only thing this place was about.
In the end, in the grand scheme, no one person or one scandal, no matter how horrific or high profile, can change the superior academics, quality of life or the half-million alumni the university has created since 1855. Mistakes can be addressed. Victims can be honored. Nothing, however, can slow the energy of young people, guilty only of being failed by their leaders, embracing the life-changing opportunity to live and learn here.
Not everyone in the Penn State community has moved on from Sandusky, Paterno or, perhaps most specifically, the Freeh Commission report that painted the situation and the iconic coach in harsh colors and led to major NCAA sanctions.
Bill O’Brien, the talented rookie coach of the football team is trying, but old battles are still being fought over this fact or that perception of the July report – even as the university’s stated goal of finding closure, quickly, is so obviously beneficial.
Sandusky is off to life in a small cell. Paterno is dead. Graham Spanier, Tim Curley and Gary Schultz are out of power, the latter two preparing for criminal trials in Harrisburg scheduled for January.
Nearly a year later, not much else truly changed. And whether that was the goal of the school commissioning and then immediately accepting the Freeh Report, let alone agreeing to NCAA sanctions that stemmed from the Freeh conclusions, it’s part of the result.
This time, especially in the buildup to this Saturday, shouldn’t be about continuing to fight over what has been lost, but noting what hasn’t been.
Because it was clear two weeks ago along the Elm-lined Mall at the heart of campus that Penn State was still Penn State in every positive way.
The Freeh report wasn’t designed to be an all-encompassing legal document. It was the school’s attempt to find an outside opinion, one from a person of stature and ability, to conclude how Jerry Sandusky happened. The firm of Louis Freeh, a retired federal judge and former chief of the FBI, was granted the task. The school offered unprecedented access to documents and personnel.
The report was as devastating as it was controversial. Paterno was blistered in it. Administrators such as Spanier, Curley and Schultz fared no better. Blame was thrown around. There were conclusions drawn and opinions published.
You know a football game was fun to watch when a punter throwing a 2-point conversion to a kicker wasn't the strangest play of the night.
Oregon showed Arizona State what a top-tier team looks like last Thursday by hanging 43 points on the Sun Devils before halftime in a 43-21 victory.
While all of the Ducks' scoring plays were highlight-reel worthy, none were quite as impressive as the touchdown pass by backup quarterback Bryan Bennett at the end of the first quarter.
Having lined up in shotgun a few times prior, Bennett was hoping to run the ball into the end zone from about 2 yards out. Somehow, a designed running play turned into one of the strangest touchdown passes you'll ever see.
Bennett took the snap and managed to get back to the line of scrimmage before being stopped by a pack of ASU defenders. Showing tremendous awareness, he stayed on his feet long enough to toss the ball forward to a decoy receiver who had all but given up on the play. That receiver just happened to be Marcus Mariota, the Ducks' starting quarterback.
After he secured the ball and leaped into the end zone, Mariota was credited with a stat few players at his position ever get to claim -- a 2-yard touchdown reception.
– B.L. King
Not every fact could be found because that was impossible. And no full, 100-percent consensus could be formed because that too was impossible – after all, there are still some around here who believe, passionately, that Sandusky is innocent. So agreement on JoePa’s role will never be reached. Never.
It would’ve served the completeness of the Freeh report to allow time to play out, at least to see what might still come out at the Curley/Schultz criminal trials. Neither man, nor chief witness Mike McQueary, spoke to investigators, although the report used grand jury and other trial testimony.
Yet that only would’ve prolonged the problem.
The Freeh report found enough. It found enough to be troubled, found enough for the school to admit failure and it found enough of too many people not doing enough to stop Sandusky. In the big picture, and again the important picture, there was adequate evidence for most to conclude enough was enough and for the school to say it was time to start anew.
Still, the backlash, particularly from the Paterno fans, was strong and continues to this day. They parse words and cling to shadows and apply the inapplicable standards of a criminal case. While there is something noble in the defense, it isn’t helping the school very much.
Everything was compounded when the NCAA used the report, which remains the official word of the university, to hit the football program up with unprecedented sanctions, including a $60 million fine, a four-year postseason ban and significant scholarship reductions.
Those that saw it as Penn State’s birthright to go 10-2, at least, recoiled.
For the rest though, the message is clearer than ever. What was taken is but a pittance to what remains.
Other than the $60 million, Penn State will part with little. There is still a team, and a good one, perhaps one even easier to root for today than a year ago. Even if it one day struggles, goes 5-7 or something, the pursuit and purpose continue. They are … (still) Penn State. There are still players on scholarship; the school is still honoring its deal to showcase their talents and provide for their education.
There are still games for families and friends to enjoy together, whether gathered around tailgates or televisions. There is even, thanks to the smart hire of O’Brien from the New England Patriots, plenty of hope for the future.
Penn State football will be affected by the NCAA sanctions. Limited scholarships will result in a lack of depth and talent. There’s no avoiding it. Not being able to offer recruits the ability to play for a championship until 2016 will push away some competitors to other schools.
Truly the only thing “lost” however is the opportunity for ten young people each year to receive a full ride to Penn State. The school could (and should) remedy that by offering ten academic scholarships to someone from the ten Pennsylvania high schools the program most often recruited through the years. That way someone from Aliquippa, for instance, is still getting a chance. He just may be from the science club. Or be female.
In terms of football, O’Brien can still sell recruits on the totality of Penn State, the program, the place and its power. He can still point to the world-class academics and the bucolic surroundings and the state of the art facilities and the vast exposure and the everywhere alumni and the talented student body and the lifelong contacts.
He can still pitch Penn State, proudly and in full.
The recruit that won’t go to here because he doesn’t like the prospect of being banned from, say, the TicketCity or TaxSlayer.com Bowl probably wasn’t made for Penn State anyway. The one that understands the opportunity at hand will make for a greater Nittany Lion, regardless of the win-loss record.
That, no matter the headlines, no matter the ensuing criminal trials, no matter the forever attacks on Louis Freeh and the Board of Trustees and the NCAA and anyone who has accepted them and begun looking forward, is what is playing out in Happy Valley. The school sought closure and they got a good measure of it.
A winning, exciting team is simply highlighting what is obvious to anyone who strolls through this still remarkable campus and witnesses the forever energy of the students and faculty and staff. Even on the afternoon of the Sandusky sentencing.
You can say the big-game Saturday against Ohio State should help Penn State continue to move on.
The truth is most of this place has already.
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