Homecoming isn't meant to be about rage. Yet there, outside Beaver Stadium, was a man wearing a WE ARE ... PISSED OFF T-shirt and striding past a sign that read WE INTEND TO VOTE OUT THE PENN STATE BOARD OF TRUSTEES. Homecoming isn't meant to be about mourning, but there was a woman on her knees in the grass where the coach's statue once stood, where 20 floral bouquets would be placed before day's end, stabbing two more photo-collage posters of Joe Pa into the earth. Homecoming isn't meant to be about loss, but what else would you call the mood in State College, Pa., for the first such weekend since Jerry Sandusky and his abettors dragged the school into reputation hell?
"Less folks in the stands, less folks in the parking lots, less folks in town," said Mark Blair, class of 1994, an agent for the U.S. Treasury Department. "I think the alumni have stayed away." It was Oct. 6. Blair was sitting in the All-American Rathskeller, a college dive on South Pugh Street. The game had started in a gray chill, Penn State was losing to Northwestern by 11 in the third quarter, and Blair and his wife had the back room nearly to themselves. The "pandemonium" he said he felt at the same time last year, that Happy Valley vibe of a good place frozen in time, was gone.
"That has definitely changed," Blair said. "You're not down the rabbit hole anymore. It's more adult. It used to be that you could come back to State College and you were 20 years old again. There's a weight that was never here before."
It has been a year now. On Nov. 4, 2011, the Pennsylvania Attorney General's office filed its presentment against the then 67-year-old Sandusky, Joe Paterno's former longtime defensive coordinator, on 40 counts of sexual assault and advances on eight boys from 1994 to 2009. Within four days, Penn State athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz were facing charges of perjury before a grand jury and of failure to report suspected child abuse. (Both men deny the allegations; their trials are scheduled for January.) University president Graham Spanier was forced by the trustees to resign, and Paterno, major-college football's alltime wins leader and a symbol of sports rectitude, was fired too.
The parade of horrors has barely slowed since. There was Paterno's death from lung cancer in January; the wrenching testimony of Sandusky's victims during his June trial, which would end in conviction on 45 of 48 counts; the July 12 issuance of the devastating board-commissioned report by former FBI director Louis J. Freeh, which said Spanier, Paterno, Schultz and Curley "concealed Sandusky's activities from the Board of Trustees, the University community and authorities."
Eleven days later came the NCAA's unprecedented assumption of the report's findings and the issuance of the most punitive measures in NCAA history: the vacating of 112 Penn State wins since 1998, a $60 million fine, the slashing of 20 scholarships per year for four years and a ban on postseason play for the same period. Faced with the NCAA's death penalty, Penn State's new president, Rodney Erickson, tacitly endorsed the Freeh Report's findings and signed the NCAA's consent decree, accepting the description of a "culture in which a football program was held in higher esteem than the values of the institution, the values of the NCAA, the values of higher education, and most disturbingly the values of human decency."
It was, in sum, a catastrophe unlike any in the history of U.S. higher education. Lives were ravaged and reputations savaged. And whether the affair is anywhere close to being over is debatable. The investigation continues, and Spanier may yet face charges. The 32-member board remains under fire from angry alumni for a perceived rush to dump Paterno and accept the Freeh Report and the NCAA sanctions. And the role of Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett in both Paterno's ouster and the state's criminal investigation of Sandusky, which began in 2009 when Corbett was attorney general, threatens to become a defining issue in his 2014 reelection campaign.
As governor, Corbett has a seat on Penn State's board of trustees, a seeming conflict of interest considering that he could attend board meetings with knowledge of an investigation potentially devastating to the school. A recent poll found that a vast majority of Pennsylvanians are unhappy with Corbett's performance on the case. "Because they don't understand it," Corbett said last week. "They're still mad that it happened. They want to have somebody to blame."
In this charged atmosphere, a quaint tradition such as homecoming barely had room to breathe. All the time-honored elements were trotted out: the Friday crowning of a king and queen, the parade and pep rally, the guarding of the Lion Shrine. Even Sue Paterno, the coach's widow, showed up to retell the story of how she began the tradition in 1966. The next day Penn State scored 22 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to beat Northwestern 39--28, an electrifying comeback directed by new head coach Bill O'Brien that once might have signaled a bright new era.
"We'll never get over this," said R. Scott Kretchmar, a professor of sports ethics and philosophy, sitting in his office in Recreation Hall the next day. "It's sort of like the Kent State shooting: Everybody, when they hear 'Kent State,' thinks of a massacre. Whenever they hear 'Penn State,' they're going to think of this."