STATE COLLEGE – Legends tend to linger in college football even after they are gone.
At Penn State, getting out from under Joe Paterno’s shadow is more complicated than the typical transition from a coaching giant.
After being the most stable – in many ways stagnant – football program in the country for nearly five decades, Penn State has been awash in change in the five years since Jerry Sandusky became infamous and dragged down Paterno with him.
Moving forward has required Penn State’s new leaders to perform a most difficult maneuver: Distancing the school from a child sexual-abuse scandal that drew worldwide attention and shook Happy Valley, while not appearing to abandon the memory of the coach who many Penn Staters believe gave the university an identity for which they can still be proud.
“I think that is the ultimate challenge here,” Penn State coach James Franklin told The Associated Press. “How do you balance the history, the traditions, all the wonderful things that are deep-rooted here and have been here forever, (while) also making moves that you need to be progressive and to be moving toward a healthy present and a healthy future.”
Franklin is entering his third season at Penn State. For the first time this season, Franklin will have the full allotment of 85 scholarships available when the Nittany Lions open at home against Kent State on Saturday. Penn State has gone 7-6 each of Franklin’s first two years.
Moving forward at Penn State, though, is not just about getting past NCAA scholarship sanctions and bowl bans.
For Franklin, the 44-year-old first African-American football coach in Penn State history, one challenge is trying to get former players to actively support a program that no longer feels like home.
“The ones that have come back and been around us and spent time with us and come to practice have been really good,” the former Vanderbilt coach said. “But there’s been a group of guys that haven’t been back because once again there’s a fracture. There’s still hurt feelings. It’s not as just simple as the new coach.”
Paterno coached at Penn State for 46 seasons. He was fired by the school’s board of trustees days after Sandusky, his longtime defensive coordinator, was arrested in November 2011 for molesting and raping boys. Paterno died two and a half months later of lung cancer.
The statue of Paterno was removed from outside Beaver Stadium on July 22, 2012.
Paterno’s name is still on the campus library built in part by his donations, but highly visible and university-sponsored signs of him are hard to find.
“I think Penn State needs to embrace Joe Paterno for who he was, for what he did at Penn State, unequivocally and without hesitation,” said Anthony Lubrano, a Penn State alum and elected member of the board of trustees.
Lubrano said the university at minimum needs to apologize to Paterno’s wife, Sue, display the statue again and rename the stadium Paterno Field at Beaver Stadium.
While juggling wishes of ardent supporters like Lubrano, university leadership is also trying to convey to those for whom Paterno will never be completely redeemed that Penn State’s values were not tied directly to one man.
Splits in the relationship between Penn State and its supporters can take a practical toll on the university and athletic department’s ability to compete with Michigan and Ohio State in the Big Ten. According to a university report, private support and donations to Penn State have seesawed widely since the scandal, from a high of $274.8 million in 2011 to $226 million in 2015.
Penn State’s average attendance the last four seasons is 98,685, among the best in the country. But Beaver Stadium seats 107,000-plus and 9,000 empty seats per game costs the athletic department millions.
Athletic Director Sandy Barbour and her team are considering a massive facilities upgrade, including either a renovation or a rebuild of the 56-year-old stadium. Donors will be needed, but the mere suggestion of taking down the stadium was not well received by some fans, Barbour said.
Barbour and Franklin try to stress that they will protect the things Paterno left behind that Penn Staters value most: Continuing Paterno’s so-called Grand Experiment of prioritizing academics and character and winning the right way.
“Depending on their position people may look at him differently, but it doesn’t change that he created that here. Or helped to create that here,” said Barbour, the former California AD.
As outsiders trying to lead an athletic department that had the same face for nearly 50 years, Barbour and Franklin understand full support and acceptance will take time. Winning more football games would help, but there’s a chicken-and-egg relationship between support and winning.
“I think we are still going through a healing process. I think what made Penn State successful for so long, and I think if you look at the programs across the country that were having success at the highest levels, everybody’s aligned,” Franklin said. “The head football coach, the athletic director, the president, the board and the alumni. That’s what Penn State was for a long time. We need to get back to that to be the program that everybody wants us to be.”
Many in the Penn State community are not yet ready to let go of how the school and Paterno were blamed and punished for the crimes of Sandusky, who is serving a 60-year prison sentence.
“And what many Penn Staters believe that the entirety of the Penn State community was accused of is really difficult for them to process,” Barbour said.
“That as a Penn State alum, as a Penn State employee, they’re being painted with that brush.”
The Paterno family and their staunchest supporters, including some of Penn State’s most famous football alumni such as Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris, have dug in on redeeming the coach.
“Since Joe Paterno died, a lot of people suddenly got brave and said a lot of things about him that weren’t true because he couldn’t defend himself,” Jay Paterno, Joe’s son and a former Penn State assistant coach, said in a recent speech to the Lake Erie Alumni Association.
The latest round of allegations came in May from unsealed court documents, with an alleged Sandusky victim saying he complained to Paterno about Sandusky in 1976 and was rebuffed. University President Eric Barron responded with a carefully worded defense of the school and Paterno.
“None of these allegations about the supposed knowledge of university employees has been substantiated in a court of law or in any other process to test their veracity,” Barron said.
But Barron, Barbour and Franklin can only go so far in their recognition of Paterno.
The 50th anniversary of Paterno’s first game as Penn State coach is Sept. 17, when the Nittany Lions host Temple. There is a celebration in the works and a dinner being planned for family members, friends and former players in the State College area the night before the game.
No event is scheduled yet to acknowledge the anniversary at Beaver Stadium.
“No matter what position as leadership you take on the continuum, there are others that are going to criticize,” Barbour said. “Those that think that Penn State’s not been stood up for enough. There are those that think Coach Paterno has not been stood up for enough.
“There are those that think Coach Paterno has been stood up for too much. It’s all along the continuum. For leadership, really for anybody, that’s a challenge.”
Penn State football will never be the same, but there is hope for those who believe some things should never change.
“Have these times been difficult?” senior offensive lineman Andrew Nelson said. “Yeah, sure. But Penn State is defined by the tradition, you know? It’s defined by the academics. It’s defined by the type of guys that come play here. It doesn’t matter exactly who’s sitting in that head coaching position, we have special things here. After a while, Coach Franklin really helped us buy into that. And he bought into that, too. What makes Penn State special will always be here.”