STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Beneath a clear sky and a brilliant setting sun, the Penn State marching band practiced on a field Monday afternoon.
Drums thumped in rhythm. Horns blared in unison. The soundtrack of autumn at a proud football school played out with 107,282-seat Beaver Stadium as a majestic backdrop.
Under normal circumstances, these would be the most exciting of times here in the mountains of central Pennsylvania. The football team leads its division in the Big Ten, and a big game looms Saturday against new league member Nebraska. This should be Happy Valley, indeed.
But one look at the front page of The Daily Collegian, the student newspaper, tells you that Penn State's idyllic environment has been poisoned. The blue, four-deck headline borrows a line from the school's alma mater in asking a disturbing question:
May No Act of Ours Bring Shame?
Shame has come to Penn State. It has come in the form of the Jerry Sandusky child-molestation scandal, and the attendant lack of response from school leaders. The university and all associated with it have been rocked, and the previously pristine image of Joe Paterno's powerhouse football program has been stained.
"… No matter what happens from here, no matter what allegations prove to be true or false, no matter who resigns or who steps forward, Penn State's name will forever be tarnished," wrote Daily Collegian columnist Emily Kaplan, a junior majoring in print journalism.
On campus buses, students read the headlines and discussed the fallout. Students could be overheard on their cell phones discussing the lurid details. Parents called students to see what the mood of the campus was like.
[Related: Paterno not regarded as target]
And at the Berkey Creamery, a campus landmark where they serve "Peachy Paterno" ice cream and, until two years ago, a flavor called "Sandusky Blitz," one topic has dominated the day.
"Everyone's worried right now about the reputation of the school," said Yosra Alterkawi, a sophomore from Saudi Arabia.
"Everyone's worried about JoePa and if he'll get in trouble," said Kaity Diorio, a junior from New Hampshire.
"Or if he'll be forced to resign," said Aman Chugh, a junior from Queens, N.Y.
The three students were unanimous in their belief that Paterno's unparalleled career should not be curtailed by the Sandusky scandal. They believe his actions – reporting an alleged sexual assault of a boy in the shower at the Penn State football building – to athletic director Tim Curley was a sufficient response. The Pennsylvania attorney general agreed Monday in Harrisburg, saying Paterno is not a target of the ongoing investigation, but state police commissioner Frank Noonan said in general terms that "anyone" should have "a moral responsibility to call us."
"I feel it's unfair to have him leave," Chugh said. "But if there's any other development – honestly, I hope there's not."
The thought was almost too much to verbalize for a student body that reveres the 84-year-old Paterno. As college sports has hemorrhaged integrity in recent months – from coast-to-coast scandals to mercenary conference realignment developments – Paterno's reputation further elevated him above the fetid fray. He was the white knight of college athletics, the last legitimate hero in an increasingly tawdry enterprise.
Until the most horrific of crimes were allegedly committed by a former Penn State football coaching hero – the architect of the defense that shut down Miami in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, a stunning upset that won the Nittany Lions their second national title – in the building where Joe Paterno works.
"It's one of those things you never want to talk about," said Penn State fan Michael Olmstead. "I think people would rather talk about a murder trial."
At Bill Pickle's Tap Room in State College's quaint downtown, they talked all day about the Sandusky scandal. If the locals weren't talking about it, the media was reminding them of it. Multiple TVs were tuned to ESPN's "Pardon The Interruption" Monday evening. On the bottom of the screen was the topic Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser were debating: "Should Paterno Step Down?"
"No," Olmstead said. "His reputation speaks for itself, how he carries himself in the community. He did what he was supposed to do with the information.
"I don't think it has any bearing on his legacy. He didn't necessarily do anything wrong."
[Related: Jerry Sandusky was at Penn State last week]
Not everyone agrees – certainly when it comes to Paterno's legacy and the impact on the university as a whole. A garden-variety recruiting scandal would have been difficult enough for Penn State fans to stomach. This is far worse. Unimaginably worse.
"This," said a Penn State faculty member who asked not to be identified, "hits people between the eyes. I got an email from a former student today who said that for the first time, she's not proud of Penn State. I read that and my heart sank.
"Whether you are the class of 2012 or 1968, this (football) is the bedrock experience of the place. Yes, we're talking about allegations. Yes, there's a process. For example, the Duke lacrosse story, what people thought they knew in the beginning turned out to be very different at the end. But the sensitivity of the allegations, and the fact that we're talking about young, vulnerable people, makes this very painful."
All the more painful at a place that has long celebrated its ability to win, abide by NCAA rules and graduate a high number of its football players.
The fact that Joe Paterno's name is on the school library, as a major donor is a point of immense pride to Penn Staters. So is the clean NCAA record. The popular phrase here is "Success With Honor."
"It's all about tradition here," Chugh said. "It's all about honor."
Chugh and his friends said the scandal has not dampened their enthusiasm for the Nebraska game this Saturday. In fact, they expect it to galvanize the students even more to support their fellow students on the field, who are blameless.
Chugh said there even is talk of a five-minute-long "We Are … Penn State" chant from the students Saturday.
The problem with that declaration on a turbulent Monday in State College is that it does not reinforce a belief so much as raise a difficult question.
What is Penn State now?