Commentary

Students show support for Joe Paterno

Originally Published: November 9, 2011
By Brian Bennett | ESPN.com

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Stefano DiPietro first heard about the rally on Facebook around 2 p.m. Fellow Penn State students were heading to Joe Paterno's house at dusk to show support for the coach when he returned from practice.

[+] EnlargeJoe Paterno
AP Photo/Matt RourkeStudents demonstrated their support of Joe Paterno outside of his house Tuesday night.

"From there, I just tried to relay it to as many people as possible on text, Facebook, Twitter, whatever," said DiPietro, an 18-year-old freshman. "None of us want to see Joe leave. We all love Joe."

The love was evident as several hundred students crowded around Paterno's house, located just a couple of blocks from campus. Chants of "We are Penn State!" and "Joe Paterno!" filled an otherwise quiet, darkened street.

The 84-year-old coach looked happier than any senior citizen ever to have kids trample his lawn. He exited the passenger side of a white university van to thank the students in his driveway. A few minutes after that, he opened his front window to say a few more words as the crowd surged forward to hear him. And just when everybody was about to disperse some 30 minutes later, a grinning Paterno walked out the front door to address the students one more time.

"I can't tell you how much this means to me," he said. "I've lived for this place. I've lived for people like you guys and girls."

After the rally at Paterno's house, a portion of the crowd went to stand guard by his statue at Beaver Stadium before marching to Old Main, the school's administration building. Students walked onto College Avenue before being moved off the street by police in riot gear, and they reassembled at Old Main as their numbers swelled into the thousands.

Around 11:30, the crowd marched back to Beaver Stadium, where several thousand gathered around the Paterno statue until well after midnight. Other than a few overturned garbage cans by the stadium, the demonstrations appeared to be mostly peaceful.

Support for Paterno among the student body appears to remain high, even as the entire Penn State community struggles to deal with news of the child molestation allegations against former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, a scandal that has put the coaching legend's career in jeopardy. Paterno asked the students to say a prayer for the alleged victims, adding that "it's a tough life when people do certain things to you."

But that's about all he had to say concerning the charges surrounding his former assistant or his role in allowing Sandusky to avoid investigation or arrest for so long. According to grand jury documents, Paterno told athletic director Tim Curley about an eyewitness account of Sandusky allegedly raping a boy in a locker room shower in 2002. But as far as we know, Paterno did nothing else to intervene, and he declined to answer any questions Tuesday after his scheduled news conference was scrapped. His son, Scott Paterno, said the coach could speak to reporters or release a statement Wednesday.

The scandal -- which has already led to felony perjury charges for Curley and administrator Gary Schultz and may cost school president Graham Spanier his job -- has rocked this bucolic college town to its core. Yet most students seem willing to forgive Paterno and don't want to see him take the fall.

"Don't get me wrong," sophomore Gabriella Justin said after attending the rally. "It's a tragedy, everything that happened. But we support JoePa. JoePa is a part of Penn State."

Some students seemed blissfully unaware of the controversy on an unseasonably warm, cloudless November day that was perfect for throwing a Frisbee on a campus green or grabbing a waffle cone at the Berkey Creamery. But the sight of reporters, as well as scattered protests, was unmistakable.

[+] EnlargeLauren and Michael Acquaviva
Brian Bennett/ESPN.comLauren and Michael Acquaviva brought their baby to their protest on the campus.

Asher Evans was part of a loud, if small, group of demonstrators who marched through campus asking other students to join them. They remained a quartet, with three members carrying protest signs and the fourth slapping a conga drum as they yelled about the abuses that had taken place.

"We hope to increase awareness and recognition that what happened here is not OK," said Evans, a 33-year-old graduate student.

But Evans' beef lay more with upper administration then Paterno. The same held true for Vanessa Hall, who hoisted a sign outside the HUB that read: "Schultz, Curley and Spanier: You are not PSU!" The 21-year-old senior said she didn't want university money going toward the legal defense of Schultz and Curley and that she thought Spanier had "tarnished the reputation" of Penn State. But she was upset about reports that Paterno could be forced out.

"JoePa deserves our support for all the time, money and effort he put in the school," she said. "I would really hate to see him go with this ending after all he's done for us. Then again, I'm graduating, so I've already had my JoePa."

At Old Main, some protestors sat on the building's steps holding signs. Others watched them from a nearby stone ledge, checking their phones for news.

"It's a lot of shock, a lot of being hurt," sophomore Dillon Smith said. "Truthfully, it's hard to focus with everything going on. Twitter is constantly blowing up with updates here and there, and reporters are interviewing students all over the place."

Smith and his two friends, sophomores Zach Mandell and Brett Larter, planned to stay camped at Old Main to get across their message, which was that the administration's actions did not reflect the entire university. But they did not blame Paterno.

"He deserves a better ending than this," Larter said.

[+] EnlargeBrett Larter, Dillon Smith, Zach Mandell
Brian Bennett, ESPN.com Brett Larter, Dillon Smith and Zach Mandell want the administration held accountable.

Michael and Lauren Acquaviva were the rare people interviewed for this story who wanted Paterno held accountable. Lauren grew up in State College and graduated from the school last year, while Michael is a graduate student. The kind of couple who finishes each other's sentences, the Acquavivas brought their 10-month-old son, Matthias, and a protest sign to the Old Main steps.

"If something like this happened to my son and people knew about it but chose not to do anything, I feel they'd be nearly as responsible as the person who did it," Lauren Acquaviva said. "What's Paterno's motto? Victory with honor?"

"There's just no honor here," Michael Acquaviva said.

Paterno is integral to the entire campus. His name is on the library he helped build. The first sight greeting visitors to the Penn State bookstore Tuesday was a display prominently featuring a Paterno biography titled "Pride of the Lions." (Sandusky's book, cringingly titled "Touched: The Jerry Sandusky Story," is no longer on shelves.) The campus creamery still sells a flavor called Peachy Paterno.

Then there's the ultimate sign of what Paterno created in his 46 years as Nittany Lions head coach: Paternoville. Since 2005, students have formed a tent city outside the Beaver Stadium gates so they could grab a coveted front-row seat for a home football game. By Tuesday afternoon, more than 60 tents were set up in anticipation of Saturday's home finale against Nebraska.

Chad Lear and his buddies arrived Monday evening to snag a spot in the front. He is hoping the game-day atmosphere isn't diminished by the controversy.

"It's the biggest game of the year so far for Penn State, and I think it's unfair to punish the team," the senior said. "I know I'll be yelling the same as I'd normally be. I know others won't be as enthusiastic."

Freshman Susanna Nieroda was holding down the fort in a large tent Tuesday evening, taking a shift while her friends tended to other things. She didn't see any reason why things would change this weekend.

"I don't think it will dampen our spirits," she said. "We like football for a reason."

The reason football is so big at Penn State -- heck, most of the reason Penn State is so big -- traces directly to Paterno. It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that so many students would remain unwavering in their loyalty in the midst of such a devastating scandal.

"I don't think you can find another school that would do this for their head coach," DiPietro said. "We have a lot of spirit, and we believe in Joe."

Brian Bennett covers the Big Ten for ESPN.com.

ALSO SEE