Just another day in State College

Posted by Jeff Rice on November 8, 2011 

Tuesdays during the football season are usually as routine as they come for Penn State football beat reporters.

In the mornings, we interview a couple of players over the phone. Around noon, we head over to Beaver Stadium to chat with Joe Paterno. He makes a couple of jokes, tells us we don't know what we're talking about, compliments the heck out of that week's opponent, coughs a bit and heads out to prepare for that afternoon's practice. We write a few stories, and it's on to Wednesday.

This Tuesday, an unseasonably warm, sunny afternoon in once-Happy Valley, was a bit different.

11:30 a.m. -- CDT cops reporter Mike Dawson and I arrive at Beaver Stadium to find a line of no fewer than 100 reporters and photographers. Everyone's outside. As we wonder how everyone is going to fit into the media room, the emails and texts pop up -- Paterno's press conference has been canceled. Stunning. The university is apparently following the "how to make a horrible situation even worse" playbook. We receive a one-sentence explanation from SID Jeff Nelson, and then are handed pieces of paper containing the exact same statement, word-for-word. Local reporters begin to interview national reporters. Or each other. Everyone else is on the phone with editors. Meanwhile, a New York Times story breaks that says Paterno will not be back next season.

2 p.m. -- I'm back in the CDT newsroom. My phone is flooded with texts and calls from friends and other reporters as I make calls. I've just watched former Penn State lineman Matt Millen, one of Paterno's most respected former players, break down during a SportsCenter segment. As I confer with editors about the next day's stories and attempt to reach sources, Paterno exits his house to find a crowd of reporters, who hound him before he leaves for practice. He says that he wants to talk and answer questions and will soon. His son, Scott, who will spend the day being his father's bodyguard/spokesman/Twitter conduit, ushers Paterno into Guido D'Elia's SUV, then is swallowed up by the throng of reporters himself. Scott is adamant that Paterno "is still the coach at Penn State."

5 p.m. -- The parking lot adjacent to the Lasch Football Complex -- the site of one of the alleged sex crimes -- and Holuba Hall is filled with cars but only a couple of reporters linger. Still, Penn State sports information officials linger to make sure no one is peering through the fence and into Tuesday's practice, though between the tarp on one side, plywood boards on the other and bushes in the middle, it's impossible to make out more than a few helmets and the blur of bodies in motion. The sounds of football are in the air. The Nittany Lions are doing their best to carry on as if it were a regular week. Nebraska and a realistic shot at a Big Ten championship await.

6 p.m. -- A few of Paterno's neighbors walk onto their front lawns to see what is transpiring on the coach's lawn on McKee Street. A crowd that will swell to several hundred students is singing the Penn State alma mater and chanting in support of Paterno, who for the moment is still at practice. Among the signs the students are holding is one that reads "Occupy McKee Street." Paterno's wife, Sue, slowly emerges from an open garage door. The crowd cheers. Paterno shows up a few minutes later -- 6:05, to be exact. Police have blocked off the street a few blocks up. The car inches forward toward the driveway as students swarm around it. Think Elvis or Justin Bieber. Finally, Paterno gets out. The crowd lets him through. The students are cheering. They're chanting. It's the type of response that Paterno typically gets from Penn State students, the type of response he got when their parents went to school here. It's as if nothing has changed.

Except, in only a few days, everything has changed.

Will Paterno coach his final game on Saturday? Has he coached his final game already? Will he outlast Graham Spanier? Will they go down together? These are all legitimate questions, and they could all be answered in the next few days or perhaps not even for several more weeks. But it's hard to remember that when you see the coach peer out of the window in the house he raised his children in, next to a park, on a quiet little street in a quiet little college town, and wave to a group of students united only by school pride and loyalty. How could someone so beloved leave like this?

But how did it ever come to this at all? How could what has allegedly happened, what has happened and, most importantly, what DIDN'T happen have even taken place under Paterno's watch? The contrast between the idealistic Camelot that Paterno ruled for decades and the terrible crimes and the lack of response to them is striking and painful.

Happy Valley had never seen a Tuesday like this. It's hard to imagine it seeing another.

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