Penn State

Jay Paterno: ‘This is about the future’

Jay Paterno
Jay Paterno CDT file photo

“Post tenebras spero lucem.” After darkness, I hope for light.

Jay Paterno shared those words from the Book of Job on his Twitter account Monday with a picture of storm clouds punctured by light. The post came after Centre County was hammered by rough winds that knocked out power for thousands.

He wasn’t talking about his family’s recent history, or even Penn State, but the parallels are hard to miss as he was elected to the board of trustees Friday.

Paterno wasn’t there when the three winners were announced. He was on his way to alumni events. It’s hard to escape connection to a university where your last name graces multiple buildings, but he’s not trying to run away.

“I’ve never once turned away from anything for the university,” he said in a recent interview with the Centre Daily Times.

Paterno will always be defined by his relationship to that other Joseph Vincent Paterno, his late father, the man who led Penn State football for decades. He knew what it was like to be his son, to be his player, to be one of the coaches on his staff.

He knows just how long the shadow is, but he also knows that since the Jerry Sandusky scandal rocked Penn State in 2011, leading to his father’s November ousting 11 weeks before his January 2012 death, things have gotten complicated.

Paterno lost his job as a quarterbacks coach when Bill O’Brien came in to run the program and cleaned house of most staff. He and fellow assistant coach Bill Kenney filed a federal lawsuit against the university in 2014. It was dismissed in February 2016, but an appeal was filed in March 2016. The last documents in that case were filed in December when a Penn State attorney filed a withdrawal of appearance.

That happened less than a month before nominations opened up for the board of trustees.

It was not the first time he was nominated.

“In 2012, I had enough to run, but the rules were, you couldn’t if you’d been employed by the university within three years,” he said. “But people kept nominating me. Then they changed it to five years. This time, it’s five years and people asked. I said I’d be happy to run.”

Run he did. He came away with 16,322 votes from the 21,233 ballots cast, more than the winning incumbents, Alice Pope and Robert Jubelirer. Jubelirer, incidentally, also had plenty of name recognition as a former Pennsylvania lieutenant governor and senate president pro tem, but Paterno topped his votes by more than 3,000.

He says the point of running has nothing to do with his dad. It’s not about getting that statue back in place, despite what so many Nittany Lion faithful might want. It’s about doing right by the school that means everything in his family. When he talks about it, he talks earnestly and knowledgeably about both the problems facing Penn State specifically and the problems facing higher education in general.

“This is about the future,” Paterno said. “Not just here. Everywhere. Look at the overall cost of a degree. There are very serious things ahead of us.”

But very serious things are in the past, too. In March, former Penn State president Graham Spanier was found guilty just two weeks after former athletic director Tim Curley and former vice president Gary Schultz entered pleas, all to misdemeanor child endangerment. Sandusky continues to seek a new trial. And every time something good happens at Penn State, the word “scandal” seems to work its way in somewhere.

Paterno understands why that happens. In a world where Penn Staters frequently break down into those who want to go back to the old days or those who want to put the ugliness in the past and move on, he knows that neither of those are necessarily the answer.

“Everything you do is rooted in what happened in the past,” he said. “Until you are able to put the pieces together, you can’t just move on. Believe me, no one wants it all in the rear view mirror more than I do.”

But will that make it a challenge for him to be one of the alumni-elected trustees? Those nine are the largest single group in the 38-member board, but the others have a tendency to vote together, overruling the very vocal minority. Will he be able to work with people who fired his father, or who have opposed a review of former FBI director Louis Freeh’s university-commissioned report that tarred Joe Paterno, along with Spanier, Curley and Schultz, as being culpable?

It is unsurprising that for him, the answer comes back to football.

“I think the thing that I learned growing up is that when you cross the blue line, you have to forget about everything you can’t do anything about,” he said. “We would tell the players, ‘When you go to class, you have to imagine a blue line there, too.’ We need to construct blue lines everywhere.”

But his father wasn’t the only one who instilled a love of Penn State in him. His mother, Sue, after all, has a building on campus named after her, too, the Suzanne Pohland Paterno Catholic Student Faith Center. She is still a frequent presence on campus.

Paterno doesn’t even blink when asked whose legacy is harder to live up to.

“My mother’s. Absolutely,” he said. “But I don’t know that you can ever live up to anyone. The real legacy is to do the right thing, leave the world a little better than you found it.”

At the July board meeting in Harrisburg, Paterno will take a seat at the table for the first time. His outlook sounds like a sideline pep talk.

“It’s not what happens to you. It’s how you react,” he said.

Lori Falce: 814-235-3910, @LoriFalce