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Penn State football: Without Joe Paterno, a 'new normal'

Coach Bill O'Brien is ready to turn the page at an evolving Happy Valley, where the Nittany Lions play Ohio on Saturday in the first game without Joe Paterno since 1949.

August 31, 2012|Chris Dufresne
  • Penn State football players arrive at Beaver Stadium.
Penn State football players arrive at Beaver Stadium. (Gene J. Puskar / Associated…)

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — — Nothing seemed too different in Happy Valley on Friday, the day before the season opener.

The counter girl at The Creamery scooped out large mounds of "Peachy Paterno" ice cream and said it remained, by far, the most popular flavor.

A simple placard hung on the front door at the late Joe Paterno's house on 830 McKee St. read, "Proud to Support Penn State Football."

Fans camped in tents outside Beaver Stadium in advance of Saturday's opener against Ohio. The campus buzzed with activity as students crisscrossed sidewalks and lawns on a spectacularly bright and warm last day of August.

Of course, everything is different.

"We're trying to find out what the new normal is," said Malcolm Moran, a former sportswriter who teaches in the school's College of Communications. "On the surface it seems normal, but it's not."

Penn State will start a season without Paterno on the sideline for the first time since 1949, operating under the cloud of college sports' worst scandal. Former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, convicted this summer on 45 counts of child sex abuse, awaits sentencing in a jail cell not far from campus.

The NCAA in July took away scholarships, banned the team from participating in bowl games for four years and hit the university with a $60-million fine.

Several of Penn State's top players, including 1,000-yard tailback Silas Redd, have transferred.

The school this week eliminated Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" from the game-day play list even as school officials insisted it had nothing to do with lyrics that include, "touching you, touching me." There was a movement afoot on campus Friday to orchestrate a rendition of the song during the game.

Penn State players, in a jarring jolt to tradition, will have names on the back of their jerseys. "I thought it was important for the people to know who these kids were and what their names were," first-year coach Bill O'Brien said this week.

There seems to be a split among those holding onto the past and others who want to move as quickly as possible to the future.

Some vigilantly cling to Paterno's memory and what they perceive as unwarranted tarnishing of his legacy. A pop-up cardboard of Paterno's likeness was perched near the spot where his statue once stood. A student wore a T-shirt to class that read, "Thanks Joe. God Bless." Another read, "Coach Paterno — only one thing: Thank you." Another: "National Communist Athletic Association."

Others want to disassociate and move forward.

"I think it's a very complicated issue," senior architectural design major R.J. Fazio said while standing next to a tent outside Beaver Stadium. "You have to recognize something bad happened here — nothing anyone is proud of at all. But a whole lot has been miscommunicated out there. We haven't been portrayed very well in the press."

Fazio said it hurts him that the Sandusky scandal has tarnished his university. "This isn't a Penn State issue," he said. "This is a human issue. This could happen anywhere."

On Friday, there were 31 tents set up in the area outside Beaver Stadium long known as "Paternoville." However, the name was changed to "Nittanyville" in July in an effort to distance it from Paterno.

Jeffrey Lowe, a Penn State senior and vice president of the committee in charge of the change, said there was initial backlash from some Paterno devotees. One email suggested the committee should "burn in hell."

Lowe said the change was made because "We wanted to focus on football again." He said Penn State players, including quarterback Matt McGloin, stopped by this week to show their support.

Paterno will always be a divisive figure to some. Many are torn over the complicated coach who won 409 games but also may have aided in covering up unthinkable acts.

"I'm not at a point with Joe where I can view it as black and white," Lowe said.

Paterno isn't around to defend, or amend, his legacy. He died in January, at age 85, of lung cancer. He is buried in a simple plot at Spring Creek Presbyterian Cemetery, only a couple of miles from campus.

Paterno's grave marker is inscribed with his favorite quote from Robert Browning: "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?"

For years around here, Penn State football was considered heaven on Earth. Now it moves on. Saturday begins the next chapter with a new coach, in a new season.

No one knows yet what the "new normal" will be. Fans have clearly embraced O'Brien and the predicament he inherited. "The second he walks out there Saturday, that's his team," Lowe said.

The "new normal" might mean Penn State losing its opener to a very good Ohio team, led by former Nebraska Coach Frank Solich. The Bobcats won 10 games last year for the first time since 1968.

No one knows what life without Paterno will be like because it's been six decades since anyone had to consider it.

O'Brien has few ties to Paterno, other than both were graduates of Brown University.

"I will certainly have butterflies before the game," O'Brien said. "I'd be crazy to tell you otherwise."

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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