Commentary

Don't rename Beaver Stadium

Updated: April 22, 2012, 8:08 AM ET
By Roy S. Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

How quickly they forget.

If you're a passionate Penn State supporter, you just might know of Gen. James A. Beaver, who died almost a century ago.

Then again, his great contributions to his country, the state of Pennsylvania, and Penn State itself appear to have faded from the memories of many Nittany Lions faithful.

[+] EnlargeJoe Paterno
Ned Dishman/Getty ImagesJoe Paterno was highly successful as Penn State's football coach.

His name adorns Beaver Stadium on the Penn State campus (c'mon, some of you actually thought it was name for beavers, didn't you?) for myriad reasons. He was a Civil War hero -- just 26 years old in 1864 when his right leg was shattered (it was subsequently amputated) by a rifle ball as he traveled to the front lines to lead his Union brigade, the 148th Pennsylvania Volunteers, against Confederate forces at the Battle at Ream's Station. Beaver had been slightly wounded in an earlier battle and was transported to Ream's Station by ambulance.

Upon leaving the military, Beaver, a lawyer, became a member of the board of trustees at PSU and for two years was acting president of the university (1906-08). He also served as the state's governor (1887-91) and as a judge on the state's first Superior Court. He died in 1914.

While at Penn State, he helped secure state funds to improve what became known as Beaver Field, a 500-seat facility located elsewhere on campus from where 106,572-seat Beaver Stadium now sits.

Now, many Pennsylvanians want to strip this prominent recognition from their native war hero and bestow it upon late head football coach Joe Paterno. Nearly half (46 percent) of the 1,300 registered voters in a Quinnipiac University survey released last week favored renaming the stadium for Paterno.

Of course, given Paterno's now-tainted legacy, it was no surprise that almost as many of those polled (40 percent) said they were against the change. Thirteen percent stayed out of the fray.

The easy stance to take is that changing the name would be wrong. And indeed it would be.

Not right now. Maybe not ever.

But hold on. This isn't a predictable knee-jerk opinion based on the sordid allegations of almost unfathomable events and the moral questions surrounding the Jerry Sandusky mess. The former assistant coach, and longtime friend of Paterno, is charged with 52 counts of sexual abuse of boys over a 15-year period. Paterno is said to have known about at least one instance of abuse that allegedly occurred in a shower at the school's athletic facilities, but took the information to his bosses, not to the police.

That lapse, along with the magnitude of the imbroglio, cost Paterno his job in November. Two and a half months later, the 85-year-old winningest coach in college football history died after a short battle with cancer.

His name should not adorn Beaver Stadium because, in truth, Paterno deserves better than that.

[+] EnlargePaterno
Nabil K. Mark/Getty ImagesJoe Paterno already has buildings named after him, not to mention the statue.

Beaver Stadium is indeed the house Paterno built. He joined the Nittany Lions coaching staff in 1950, before some of the current students' parents were born, embarking on a career that spanned 12 U.S. presidents and 833 coaching changes among other major college football programs.

"Colored Only" signs still dotted the American landscape when he arrived at State College, but an African-American president lived in the White House when Paterno was fired. Indeed, he played a small role in affecting the kind of change our nation underwent as he prowled the sidelines.

By the time he began coaching, Penn State -- one of the first major college teams to recruit, play and start black players -- had already taken stands against segregation: In 1946, the team forced Miami to cancel a game because the Hurricanes refused to allow black players in their stadium. The following year, with Penn State set to play SMU in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, the two schools forced the state of Texas to put a moratorium on its segregationist laws regarding public facilities so the game could be played before an integrated crowd.

In 1969, head coach Paterno passed up a potential national championship opportunity by declining an invitation to return to Texas and play the No. 1 (and all-white) Longhorns in the Cotton Bowl, which would have been a matchup of undefeated teams. The Nittany Lions attended the Orange Bowl instead and defeated Missouri 10-3 and finished No. 2 in the nation.

Paterno consistently preached integrity and education -- and he won football games. His record was 409-136-3. He also won two national titles.

The young men who played for Paterno got their degrees, too (what a radical thought!). Nearly nine in 10 Nittany Lions graduated, and in a measure called the graduation success rate (it accounts for athletes that transfer to other schools), Penn State's 85 percent was second in the Big Ten only to Northwestern, according to the NCAA's 2010 graduation report.

Paterno, who reportedly earned a $1,022,794 salary in 2011, was also a giving philanthropist, especially to Penn State. Along with his wife, Sue, he contributed more than $4 million to the university. His name adorns multiple buildings on campus that were built with the help of his gifts.

Those are facts -- as is the reality that Paterno terribly mishandled information that came to him years ago about Sandusky's alleged sexual abuse. Terribly. Even he admitted such in the days before he died.

That will long cloud all the victories and championships, and haunt the men who played for him -- many of whom are still wrestling with conflicted feelings about their coach.

[+] EnlargeJames Addams Beaver (1837-1914)
Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesPenn State's stadium is named in honor of James Addams Beaver.

Gen. Beaver deserves better, too. He lost his leg fighting to preserve this nation and planted the seeds that bloomed into a great educational institution and one of the most successful -- and, yes, prestigious -- college football programs in the nation.

Bill O'Brien deserves better, too. The Nittany Lions' new head football coach is wrestling with one heck of a shadow. And its not even clear that he has the full support of Lion Nation as he embarks on the unenviable task of righting the still-lurching ship.

Naming the stadium for Paterno now -- or anytime soon -- would only magnify O'Brien's challenge, particularly as the Sandusky saga lurches slowly through the criminal justice system toward an inevitably ugly resolution.

Like the rest of us, Paterno was an imperfect man. He clearly made decisions none of us think we would have made, given the same circumstances. (Or at least we hope we would not have made.) He ruled over an empire, and not unlike many others who rule fiefdoms too long, it seems his thinking was distorted by the intoxicating aura of his power.

In truth, any movement to rename Beaver stadium for Paterno is really a knee-jerk reaction -- a quick-fix effort to begin the restoration of the coach's legacy. (And how did we become a culture where the highest honor we bestow upon someone is to slap his name upside a hunk of concrete?)

Only time will make those repairs.

Time enough, for starters, for Sandusky's trial to resolve itself and, if found guilty, the ex-assistant is served with whatever penalty a court deems he deserves.

In the interim, Penn State should honor Paterno, but not by renaming Beaver Stadium. The university should begin by vowing -- and then demonstrating -- that it will build upon the most laudable aspects of his legacy, while using the sordid allegations in the grand jury report and indictment against Sandusky as teachable foundations for programs that address child abuse and poverty.

High graduation rates for athletes should continue to be a priority.

Integrity should continue to be a priority -- as, of course, should winning.

And never again should the school allow any coach to become powerful enough to build a culture that squashes common sense, human decency and true integrity.

Do all of that to honor Paterno.

And leave Gen. Beaver's name just where it is.

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Roy S. Johnson

Contributing writer, ESPN.com