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11.10.11

Why Penn State Fans Love Fired Coach Joe Paterno, Despite Child Abuse Scandal

The legendary coach has been fired after decades running Penn State football, but diehard fans still regard him as family. Penn Stater Maureen Seaberg explains the Joe Paterno mystique.

While most of the country is expressing outrage at Joe Paterno and the Penn State football program and administration, a smaller—but very vocal—number of supporters of the Nittany Lions persist in Happy Valley, and among the ranks of the far-flung alumni.

How can that be, given the child abuse scandal that has abruptly ended Paterno’s storied career? It’s the decades that Paterno put into building the university’s football program, and his until-now untarnished reputation, that are so hard to put away, people say.

And indeed, Paterno presided over Penn State football for 46 seasons, becoming one of the most successful coaches in college-football history.

Suddenly, he’s leaving the university—before the next football game. The school’s board of trustees has fired the coach, effective immediately, preempting Paterno’s plan to resign at the end of the season. Paterno has come under fire for not alerting authorities when he learned of an incident in which his former defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, allegedly assaulted a boy in the locker-room showers in 2002. The trustees also sacked university president Graham Spanier.

Pat Toohey, 45, an electrical-engineering graduate of the school who lives in State College, tries to explain the apparent disconnect between being horrified by the scandal and remaining supportive of Paterno.

“Everyone here thinks he’s family. You want to believe the best of him. Everyone is more likely to believe Joe—no one wants to believe the worst of him. You can’t reconcile that he’s part of this or put JoePa’s face on this tragedy. There has to be more to the story.”

Jay M. Horgas, class of ’87 and part owner of the popular nightspot The Brewery, still lives in town and says if he could sum up Paterno it would be “old-school integrity,” adding that, “He may not have served in a war, but he was the superlative of the Greatest Generation.”  

“All of the armchair people second-guessing things do not know what [then football grad assistant] Mike McQueary said to Paterno [about the incident]. He was probably more formal, less graphic than he would have been with someone his own age. This is an 84-year-old man and his boss,” Horgas says, pointing out that while people have criticized the morality of Paterno’s inaction, there are no criminal charges against the coach.

Sandusky has been arrested and accused of molesting eight boys over a 15-year period. He has denied the accusations. Paterno has expressed remorse for the victims, saying in a statement that, “It is one of the great sorrows of my life.”

On the website of the Centre Daily Times, the McClatchy paper that serves Centre County, where Penn State is located, there is a gallery titled, “Dark Days at Penn State,’’ that shows students rallying outside Joe and Sue Paterno’s home just north of campus shouting “We love you JoePa!” One of the signs two kids are hoisting above their heads says, ”Two of my favorite Js in life: Jesus and JoePa.” The type of fervor one would see at a religious revival is etched on the faces of the young faithful.

Understanding the students who deify Paterno and the alumni who still want to protect the coach is key to understanding what went so very wrong at my alma mater.

I am a Penn Stater and I’m outraged—as are most of the alumni I’m still in touch with today. It is important to say most of us are not giving Joe Paterno a pass on this and that this piece simply seeks to understand how some support still exists, given the unthinkable nature of what went on at University Park.

I do personally think Joe Paterno must shoulder the blame and responsibility for not calling police. But in the mid-to-late 1980s, when I studied journalism and Spanish at the main campus, I wore blue and white to games, tailgated, and drank when I should have been studying, and managed to get a spot working in the football dining room for a time.

One could have lifted one’s feet off the ground amid the throngs of students heading to the game on a Saturday afternoon, and still arrived at the stadium—so complete and total was the weekly migration to Joe’s House.

I’ll never forget the time JoePa approached me in that dining room and asked me (in a New York accent stronger than my own) to give an extra helping of some vegetables to one of the players. The players had food choices that non-football-playing freshmen like me could only dream of. I felt my face flush a little red, so taken was I by the man and the legend, as I scooped out the extra food.

I felt similar awe when one of my best girl friends went on to date one of his sons and I was seated with them at another friend’s wedding years later. In our insular little world in State College, these were our heroes. Young people away from home for the first time transferred their father-figure needs to Paterno.

“You can’t reconcile that he’s part of this or put JoePa’s face on this tragedy.”

Penn State sits in the Nittany Valley of Centre County, so encircled by nearby mountains that when rain clouds form, they don’t blow out of the region but stay there, trapped, until every last drop has fallen. And like the actual weather systems of the region, the even darker cloud that’s now descended on the university will likely sit over campus until everything comes out in the wash.

In the meantime, I’d like to see alumni boycott donations to the university this year and instead establish a fund for the alleged victims of Jerry Sandusky.

Only then can we begin to atone for our being blind, and in some ways complicit, for so long.