Mixed emotions in State College

Originally Published: September 1, 2012
By Adam Rittenberg | ESPN.com

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Less than a football field separates the Nittanyville tents outside Gate A at Beaver Stadium from the grassy area where Joe Paterno's statue once stood.

[+] EnlargePenn State football fans
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarPenn State fans turned out in droves to welcome the team to Beaver Stadium ahead of its season opener against Ohio.

The two places might as well have been in different time zones during Penn State's opening weekend of football.

At Nittanyville, where students camp out the week before home games to get the best seats in the student section, it's all about moving forward. Friday afternoon, the residents put the finishing touches on signs for the 2012 Penn State football team, including one that read "BO'B The Builder," a shoutout to the team's new coach, Bill O'Brien. Thirty-one tents of students -- approximately 240 in all -- assembled Wednesday night, a larger turnout than expected for a season opener unlike any other in the history of college football.

For those who gathered at Nittanyville, which had been Paternoville until changing its name in July in the wake of the release of the Freeh report, the objective is moving forward.

"We're here to support the team," said Nittanyville vice president Jeff Lowe, a senior from Austin, Texas. "It's remained that exact goal forever. … It's very strange this year, and people are still a little upset about it, but we're here for Bill O'Brien. We've got to do what we can to make banners, to support Coach O'Brien and the rest of the players."

There also was support for O'Brien and the current team at the place where the statue stood until July 22. But the Penn State fans who gathered there this weekend have a tougher time shifting gears from reverse to drive. They ensured Paterno had a presence before Penn State's first season opener without him since 1949.

A life-size cardboard cutout of Paterno was placed in the grass Friday afternoon, with a flower and an accompanying sign: "Joe Pa made Penn State a better place." The cutout eventually was removed, replaced Saturday with a Paterno bobblehead and flowers, signs and pictures of the late ex-coach, and even another cutout. Several fans snapped pictures next to the display.

"This is a sad commentary on what's happened to this university," Penn State trustee Anthony Lubrano, whose pro-Paterno platform helped him get elected to the board, said while standing near the makeshift shrine. "The statue, which, by the way, Joe didn't particularly like, symbolized so much for so many. That's why they're all here today. You can take away the statue, but you can't take away the memories."

And while Penn State wants to move forward after the Jerry Sandusky scandal, the sanctions and the scrutiny, it's not going to be so easy. There was excitement Saturday, at least before Penn State's 24-14 loss to Ohio, but also anger and sadness. There were hopeful displays -- including a "Rally Ring" of fans who linked arms and encircled the stadium two hours before kickoff to support victims of child abuse -- but also fans wearing T-shirts bashing the NCAA, the Freeh report, the board of trustees and the news media.

[+] EnlargePaterno Bobblehead
Adam Rittenberg/ESPN.comPenn State fans ensured Joe Paterno's memory was represented at the Nittany Lions' season opener against Ohio.

It was a mass of mixed emotions Saturday at Beaver Stadium, and fans hopscotched between yesterday, today and tomorrow.

"It's tough," Penn State trustee and former football player Adam Taliaferro said on the field moments after the game ended. "A lot of people are still upset about everything, the NCAA sanctions, there's so many different layers. We're trying to move forward, but we've still got to work some things out, and that's going to take time."

Carrie Cannon, a 1990 Penn State alumna, called the scene "unbelievable, unreal, surreal."

"You just feel badly on so many levels," she said. "But we're excited that we're starting again, and hopefully everybody's moving forward from here."

The return of football served as a unifier for different segments of Penn Staters throughout the weekend.

Thousands showed up at Beaver Stadium for a pep rally Friday night. Thousands more gathered near the south tunnel Saturday morning as the team arrived, many holding signs that read "You stayed … We stand with you!"

Members of Penn State's other athletics teams donned "OneTeam" T-shirts and gathered on the field for a pregame ceremony. The football team took the field to an ear-splitting ovation, and chants of "We are! Penn State!" and "Bill O'Brien!" continued throughout the game, even in the closing seconds when the Nittany Lions' 24-14 loss to Ohio was sealed.

"The fact that we can't go to a bowl game, we can't go to a Big Ten championship game," Nittanyville president Troy Weller said, "we're going to be a lot more excited for the games we do have."

Despite the conflicting emotions and the lingering anger at the NCAA and others, the prospect of no football this fall would have been "horrible," athletic director Dave Joyner said before the game.

"Do I wish nothing ever happened? Absolutely," Joyner said, referring to the child sex abuse scandal at the school. "But I'm grateful we're playing."

Penn State players were grateful for the game and the support. Several showed up at Nittanyville earlier in the week, including starting quarterback Matt McGloin and top running back Bill Belton (according Lowe and Weller, players rarely visit before the first home game).

The game drew 97,186 -- about 10,000 below capacity -- but the crowd did its job.

"We have the best fans in the nation," defensive tackle Jordan Hill said. "They came out and showed us how much they care."

Many fans wore "Billieve" T-shirts, a salute to O'Brien, as well as others pertaining to the current team, but there were nearly as many tributes to Paterno, whose widow, Sue, and children Jay, a former Penn State assistant, and Mary Kay attended the opener. Jay Paterno wished McGloin luck in the tunnel before the game and told ESPN's Tom Rinaldi, "This is where I go on my fall Saturdays. Where else would I be?"

A cardboard cutout of Paterno was placed in the suite reserved for former Penn State star and vocal Paterno supporter Franco Harris. Fans donned T-shirts emblazoned with "JVP" and "We [heart] JoePa," with Paterno's face in the place of a heart. One man wearing a "Paternoville" shirt led chants of "We are! Because he was!" at the Paterno statue site.

Paterno wasn't directly acknowledged in the pregame ceremony, as Penn State held a "moment of reflection" to recognize child abuse victims as well as people who have endured loss.

"Joe's legacy is too big to be tuned out by these happenings," said Al Sartoris, Cannon's husband and a 1987 Penn State graduate. "You may find that people have bad things to say about him for the next year, the next two years or maybe even while the sanctions last, but when my kids grow up and your kids grow up and they come to this stadium and they see these games and the tradition, the stories of Joe Paterno are still going to be there.

[+] EnlargeBill O'Brien
Andrew Weber/US PresswireAn emotional day in State College ended with a Penn State defeat for Bill O'Brien in his first game as head coach.

"They're not going to say, 'This is where Joe Paterno coached for 40-something years and oh, what a shame it was that he let all this stuff happen.' That's not going to happen."

Sartoris didn't wear a Paterno tribute shirt Friday. His read "The Freeh Stooges," and showed the faces of former FBI director Louis Freeh, NCAA president Mark Emmert and Penn State president Rodney Erickson.

Other fans had conflicting wardrobe choices. Rich Uzelac, a 1972 Penn State alum from Johnstown, Pa., donned a T-shirt that criticized the NCAA for "Overstepping their bounds and punishing the innocent since 1906." Pinned to the shirt was a button that read "Penn State Proud."

"I came from the protest generation," Uzelak said. "I guess that's part of the reason. If this was 1972, you'd probably see 1,000 or more shirts like this on. Secondly, it's showing my support for Joe Paterno. Joe made a mistake. What's been lost in all of this is the fact he did so much good. If we were all like Joe, this would be a much better world to live in. I just think he's been mistreated, and it's a shame because he's not around to defend himself.

"He'll be a hero of mine forever."

O'Brien has deftly handled the Paterno questions since his arrival and sidestepped potentially inflammatory statements. But at the team's media day last month he urged Penn State to "stop arguing" and move forward.

How realistic is O'Brien's request?

"I understand the importance of wanting to move forward, but Coach O'Brien doesn't really have a history [with] Penn State and the community," Lubrano said. "For people in this community, it's important that we don't just move forward. It's that we move forward with a bridge to that past, and we recognize the many contributions Joe Paterno made to the Penn State community. …

"I'm not prepared to move on without dealing with the past. It's just not going to happen."

Football is back at Penn State, and despite the excitement for the game, it's not a panacea, nor should it be. The scenes of opening weekend showed Penn State is still somewhat stuck -- between now and then, between the old coach and the new team, between anger and hope.

"There will be days of anger, days of sadness, days of excitement," Taliaferro said. "Just a range of emotions."

Penn State took a step Saturday, a step toward an uncertain future.

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