Commentary

Penn State ends worst week unified

Originally Published: November 9, 2011
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- On a brilliantly crisp autumn afternoon, the kind of Saturday that explains why God gave a pig skin, the Penn State community gathered in Beaver Stadium to find comfort and, for three hours, forget its suddenly great troubles. Over the course of the last seven days, so much of what these people hold dear has been demolished.

They fear they harbored a monster in their midst. They miss their beloved head coach. They continue to swear allegiance to the school that fired him. They are worried about the future, mad at the messengers and nervous about the next news bomb to drop.

[+] EnlargePenn State players
Evan Habeeb/US PresswireThe Nittany Lions walked out of the tunnel unified.

Faced with all of that, No. 12 Penn State's 17-14 loss to No. 19 Nebraska didn't seem like all that big a deal.

Penn State may be big enough to enroll 45,000 students, but in the minds of its faculty and alumni the school remains a small, insular cocoon -- the county seat of Nowhere.

Penn State may have matured into a major research institution. But on Friday afternoon, just inside the front door of the Nittany Lion Inn, surely as cozy and charming as when it opened in 1931, several crates of red delicious apples welcomed anyone who walked through the double doors. Please, sir, take one.

"They're from the Penn State orchard," the bellman said with pride.

Into this isolation came the biggest story in college football since the death of Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne in a plane crash in March 1931.

Then, an iconic coach whose public persona had moved beyond the sports page was taken from the nation in an instant. His biographer, Ray Robinson, called Rockne's death "the first time that an entire country appeared to be united in its grief." CBS Radio broadcast the funeral. President Herbert Hoover, no sports fan, made a statement of mourning.

Eighty years later, an iconic coach whose public persona long ago moved beyond the sports page was dismissed with a phone call. In the ballroom of the Inn on Friday, Dr. Rodney Erickson, in his second full day as the university's interim president, held a media conference. Someone asked him whether Joe Paterno would be welcome at the game Saturday.

"Clearly," Erickson said, "he's welcome to come, as any other member of the public would be."

Clearly, Erickson in one sentence reduced Paterno, who devoted his life to Erickson's university, to just another ordinary Joe.

For the first time since 1965, Penn State played a game without Paterno as its head coach. For the first time since 1949, Penn State played a game without him on its staff.

Paterno has lawyered up, as one must do in today's litigious society. He is believed to have watched the game in his home, which is within walking distance of the stadium. But to say he was not here Saturday would be inaccurate.

Paterno was here in the seat left empty on the team's Bus 1 to the stadium. "That's where Coach usually sits," interim coach Tom Bradley said.

Paterno was here in the white coat that his son Jay, the Nittany Lions' quarterbacks coach, grabbed out of his dad's closet. It may be the coat that Joe Paterno wore in 2001, when he got his 324th win, surpassing Bear Bryant as the winningest coach in FBS history.

"I don't know," Jay said. "It was in the closet. It was a little symbolic."

Paterno was here, memorialized in bronze. On the west side of the stadium Saturday morning, 16 members of the Penn State Glee Club stopped on the closed-off street in front of the Paterno statue and gave an impromptu, three-song concert.

"We want everybody to remember what Penn State Pride is, especially today," said club member Kevin Shultz, a senior majoring in music education.

[+] EnlargeJay Paterno
Rob Christy/US PresswireJay Paterno was on the sideline for the first time without his father.

They sang the university alma mater, which includes the following lines:

"May no act of ours bring shame
To one heart who loves thy name"

Paterno was here via the letter that he wrote to the team. In the locker room before the game, Tim Sweeney, who played for Penn State in the late 1980s, read a message to the Nittany Lions from the Letterman's Club. Then he read the letter from Paterno.

"It was just a few sentences," quarterback Matt McGloin said, "how he was upset he couldn't be here, just to focus on the game. Typical Joe, trying to keep himself out of the spotlight and just focus on the players."

McGloin said the Nittany Lions' slow start may have been because of how emotional they were when they came out of the locker room.

"You could hear a pin drop," McGloin said. "A lot of tears. It was just an emotional time. Even though it was only a few sentences, they were strong sentences."

And Paterno was here in the way that the Nittany Lions rallied from a 17-0 deficit in the third quarter to within a field goal. In the book, "Letters to Joe," published this year by the Letterman's Club as a tribute to Paterno, the team captains dating to 1966 wrote Paterno letters of tribute. Many of them shared their favorite bits of Paterno wisdom.

Sean McHugh, the 2003 captain: "Sometimes life will back you into a corner; you can either cower and hide or push up your sleeves and say bring it on."

That is a very crowded corner. Paterno is there without a team to coach, and with a legacy tarnished by scandal. Penn State is there, trying to gain its footing after what Roger L. Williams, the executive director of the Penn State Alumni Association, described as "the worst week in the university's 156-year history." Most important, the victims of sexual abuse are there, attempting to heal from the most egregious of crimes.

When the game ended Saturday, and the dispirited Nittany Lions headed toward their locker room, Penn State fans rose and gave them a standing ovation. They roared their loudest "WE ARE ... PENN STATE!" cheer of the day. The game may have been a loss. But it also signified the end to the school's worst week. Maybe the fans understood that the game represented an end to the beginning.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com