Joe Paterno

'Joe's legacy:' Almost a year after his death, Paterno's image still debated, defended

A sign in the window of David Godiska’s State College store backs the late Joe Paterno.

“I’m really kind of disappointed in the people in the town there,” said Godiska, who owns the Northampton Piano Co. curio shop on North Atherton Street. His window message reads “We support Joe Paterno.”

“Joe did so much for the community, and he’s almost been wiped out.”

Emotions are mixed as the first anniversary of the death of the longtime Penn State football coach approaches and the region wrestles with his connection to the crimes of convicted child-molester Jerry Sandusky.

Paterno died a year ago Tuesday at Mount Nittany Medical Center as a result of complications from lung cancer.

Some, like Godiska, want to see Paterno’s stature restored, skeptical of the findings in the Louis Freeh report released last summer that Paterno either knew about Sandusky’s crimes and did nothing to stop them, or that the coach was involved in a cover-up of the Sandusky scandal for years.

Others have vilified Paterno for his role in the Sandusky scandal, which saw the NCAA hit Penn State with severe sanctions including stripping the coach of the last 111 wins of his career.

Paterno and then-president Graham Spanier were removed from their jobs by Penn State’s board of trustees after the Sandusky charges came down in November 2011.

Godiska said he will “stand by” Paterno, and he hopes others do as well.

Some high-profile individuals, including former Penn State football standout Franco Harris, have done just that, working to shift the blame away from beloved figure known as “JoePa” among fans.

“He’d have given his soul and last penny to Penn State and the students, and in turn, he’s getting shafted, and he’s not even here to defend himself,” Godiska said.

“All the good he did for his school and his community: That’s what I think he’ll be remembered for.”

‘An unbelievable journey’

Fran Fisher’s relationship with Paterno dates to 1966, the year Paterno stepped up from assistant to head coach and Fisher began broadcasting Nittany Lions games on the radio.

Fisher called games through 1982, including the school and Paterno’s first national championship that year. He returned to the broadcast booth for the 1994 through 1999 seasons.

Fisher compared Paterno’s death a year ago to losing his wife three years earlier, and said the pain was elevated as Paterno’s legacy became tarnished by the Sandusky scandal, including charges against Paterno’s former colleagues — Spanier, athletics director Tim Curley and former vice president for finance Gary Schultz.

“It’s been an unbelievable journey and one of the most devastating things I’ve been through,” Fisher said.

“When the remorse and sadness are gone, and when you face the reality that someone is not coming back, then you don’t have any choice but to proceed forward,” he said. “It’s a cliché, but life does go on. I think the community has responded well in that regard. It’s been tough, but the community, the university, the student body, the alumni — people are moving on.”

Fisher served as the executive director of the Nittany Lion Club, a Penn State sports fundraising organization, from 1983 to 1988.

“The whole situation was bizarre,” he said. “In a short space of time, you had the Sandusky charges, the firing of Joe and then the death of Joe. I’m not sure any university or athletic department will go through a thing such as this.”

Lou Prato, a university historian and the former director of the Penn State All-Sports Museum, characterized his emotions as the anniversary approaches as “melancholy.”

“A year ago today, we knew he was on his death bed,” Prato said. “Then everything happened so quickly.”

‘Not a village anymore’

The Paterno family announced its patriarch’s death on a Sunday morning. Rumors and false reports of his death were swirling the night before, even as students and community members gathered around the Paterno statue outside Beaver Stadium.

On Jan. 24 and 25, thousands of mourners passed through the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center on the Penn State campus to view Paterno’s casket.

A funeral service was held Jan. 25 at the Pasquerilla center, attended by hundreds, including numerous former players. Then thousands lined the streets on campus and in State College as a hearse carried Paterno’s casket through town, past Beaver Stadium and on to Spring Creek Presbyterian Cemetery, where he is buried.

A day later, more than 12,000 people filled the Bryce Jordan Center for a memorial service that featured remarks from dignitaries, ex-players and Paterno’s son, Jay, an assistant coach with the Nittany Lions under his father.

Susan Welch, dean of Penn State’s College of the Liberal Arts, was among those who spoke at the memorial, recalling Paterno’s commitment to her area of study and education programs broadly.

Welch said Paterno’s support of the university’s academic mission will be part of his legacy.

“That certainly stood out at that moment and still stands out today,” she said. “That he helped raise academic aspirations in the college, and the university is a mark that’ll live on.”

Before the Sandusky scandal hit in November 2011, the harshest criticism aimed at Paterno was that he perhaps coached too long. During Paterno’s 46 seasons at the helm, the Nittany Lions enjoyed many winning seasons and also saw players graduate with regularity.

During his tenure, the State College community grew, highways were built and the local economy flourished.

Beaver Stadium seated about 48,000 when Paterno was named head coach. Expansion projects increased capacity to 77,000 by 1980, 94,000 in 1994 and 107,000 by the mid-2000s.

“Those Saturdays certainly bring a lot of people to town for hospitality opportunities, for food service, for paraphernalia,” Fisher said. “People come to town and walk away with bags of stuff from the Penn State bookstore and Lions Pride and so on.

“There’s the highway system, routes 80 and 99. Certainly football is at least somewhat responsible for those things.”

Fisher said: “It’s not a village anymore. When I was in school here in the 1940s, it was a village. But not anymore.”

‘We’ve written him off’

As recently as a year and a half ago, Paterno’s image was omnipresent across the community and Penn State campus.

But in the weeks after the Sandusky grand jury presentment, Penn State announced it would no longer offer Paterno merchandise.

Other changes followed the Freeh report:

On July 22, the Paterno statue, where mourners lit candles and left tributes during his illness and after his death, was removed. Within a week, even the wall that had stood behind the statue was gone, the whole shrine replaced by trees and sod as if it had never been there.

Paterno’s name did remain on the university library, which had received millions from the coach and his family.

“I think it’s sad that we’ve written him off,” said Jim Meister, president of the Penn State Quarterback Club in 2005 and 2006.

After his retirement from Alcoa, Meister worked with Penn State on its stadium expansion projects in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“I thought you were innocent until proven guilty,” Meister said. “He doesn’t exist anymore in the lore of Penn State. But one of these days, the trials will be over and the truth will come out.”

‘Acted too quickly’

Perjury and failure-to-report proceedings for Curley and Schultz were to begin this month. That trial was delayed because of similar charges filed in late 2012 against Spanier.

Paterno supporters point to the whirlwind week that began with the grand jury presentment against Sandusky and charges against Curley and Schultz. That week in 2011 included the late-night firing of Spanier and Paterno and a disturbance that followed on the streets of downtown State College.

“He’s on trial as much as Curley, Schultz and Spanier,” Prato said. “In the public eye, he was convicted a year ago.”

Godiska dismissed allegations in the Freeh report regarding Paterno as inconclusive and “mumbo-jumbo.”

Meister agreed.

“I think and still believe he was innocent,” Meister said. “Knowing him and the disciplinarian that he was, I can’t believe he would have put up with it. The thought that he would protect a pedophile is beyond anything I can imagine.”

The board of trustees remains under fire from alumni, from Harris and other ex-players, and even from some of its own members for the Paterno firing, done with a phone call to his house late on the night of Nov. 9, 2011.

“There could have been better ways of dismissing him than what happened that night,” Meister said. “There are a lot of pent-up bad feelings about how the trustees handled it.”

Meister added: “It was a horrific situation, but I think we acted too quickly. Sadly, that probably helped speed along his demise, and that troubles me.”

‘The torch was passed’

Football went on without Paterno last fall at Penn State.

New coach Bill O’Brien guided the Nittany Lions to an 8-4 record despite the NCAA sanctions that reduced scholarships and allowed players to transfer to other schools without penalty.

The NCAA sanctions also kept Penn State from playing in a bowl game. That ban is in place for three more years.

O’Brien received several coaching honors, including the Bear Bryant Award on Thursday night.

“This was the year the torch was passed,” Prato said. “The fans still love Paterno, but they love the new guy, too. And the kids, they were Paterno’s kids, and that helped things, too.”

Fisher said: “To this day, it doesn’t seem right to look down at that sideline and not see those rolled-up trousers.”

He added: “It has been a very trying time. My interest in Penn State football kind of faded away for a while, although coach O’Brien and the team helped revive it.”

Another of the penalties from the NCAA was the vacating of football wins from 1998 through 2011, the period of Sandusky’s crimes and the ensuing investigation.

That meant Paterno went from college football’s all-time wins leader with 409 down to 298. That didn’t sit well with many fans, including the owners of one local business, whose sign out front calls for the wins to be restored.

“The NCAA took away his victories,” Prato said. “They didn’t need to do that. That was all personal.”

‘Hooks into people’s feelings’

Sandusky was convicted in June of molesting 10 boys over 15 years. He was found guilty on 45 of 48 counts against him.

Penn State is working with Sandusky’s victims to reach settlements in their civil suits against the university.

One of the arguments made for removing the Paterno statue was that it had become a symbol of indifference toward the victims of child abuse and other crimes.

Dealing with the pain felt by the victims has been a challenge for the community as it moves past the Sandusky moment and also as it wrestles with how to remember Paterno.

“We’re not used to thinking about the needs of people who have been victimized,” said Anne Ard, director of the Women’s Resource Center in State College. “It’s painful, hard to think about that. When we are forced, often we’re just not sure what to do with it.”

Would a tribute to Paterno in effect also be a slap at victims of abuse?

“I think what happens is as a community we don’t think about the impact public celebrations may have on people who have been victims of violence,” she said.

She said while many will struggle to ever give Paterno the benefit of the doubt in the Sandusky matter, the dialogue does elevate awareness of the ongoing issue of child abuse.

“We’ve had some conversations in the past year that allow us to think more clearly about that,” Ard said. “Should the statue come down or stay up, for example. Conversations have the potential to open us up and to look at what it means to be traumatized.

“When we do things in a public way, it’s going to have an impact beyond what we expect. Whether you think the statue should stay or go, whether you think he was a good guy or complacent, the conversations have been positive ones.”

Ard said: “Generally speaking, the reality is, if you have been a victim of assault, you spend your life moving from being a victim to a survivor. Every time there is a new headline, a new appeal, a new disclosure, a new conversation about any of this, I think it hooks into people’s feelings. In some ways, people have been living through this.”

‘Bigger than football’

As the anniversary of Paterno’s death nears, and the Sandusky trial recedes into the past, perhaps feelings toward Paterno are evolving.

Welch pointed to her college’s Paterno Fellows Program, supported by Joe and Sue Paterno. She said that at a recent ceremony honoring students who had gone through the program, faculty members referenced Paterno and his commitment to excellence.

“He was somebody who really put his efforts where his ideas were,” she said. “We saw that most of the time in football, but he certainly lent out his time, and his name, and his energy on many, many occasions to help us move forward in the college.”

Anthony Lubrano, a Philadelphia businessman elected to the Penn State board of trustees last April, is among those leading the charge to restore Paterno’s image.

He would like to see the trustees and the university honor Paterno in a public way for his contributions to academics and his successes in football.

“It’s much bigger than football. It’s much bigger than academics,” Lubrano said. “It’s about what Penn State represents.”

Lubrano points to twin surveys of alumni conducted in 2012, one in May and another in December. In May, 87 percent of those who responded said they wanted Penn State to honor Paterno. By December, after the Sandusky trial, Freeh report and NCAA sanctions, that number had dipped but was still at 75 percent.

“To me, that’s statistically significant,” Lubrano said. “We have done nothing to defend him.”

‘Get the narrative changed’

The man whose donations helped build Penn State’s baseball stadium said the Freeh findings did not reduce Paterno’s image in his mind.

“Joe was not a harborer of child molesters and pedophiles,” Lubrano said. “There was not a strand of DNA in his body that would have allowed that to happen. Let’s stop putting this on him.”

Lubrano will join Harris for a pair of forums concerning Paterno and the Sandusky scandal later this month. The sessions — dubbed “Upon Further Review” — are scheduled for Jan. 25 in King of Prussia and Jan. 27 in Washington, D.C.

Last fall, the first “Upon Further Review” forum was held in Pittsburgh.

“Hopefully we can continue down the path to try to get the narrative changed,” Lubrano said.

In the coming days, Paterno’s family is expected to announce findings from its own investigation aimed at debunking some of the Freeh findings.

“To me, the family has shown remarkable restraint,” Meister said. “To have his name tainted as his has been. ... I just hope for the great man he was and the great family they are that we find out once and for all what happened and that we restore their name if we learn that Joe did nothing wrong.”

‘Still to be determined’

Godiska said he has at his shop a prized silver-colored commemorative football that was signed by Paterno soon after his last victory. Though the football is valuable, Godiska said, he has no intention of selling it.

Instead, he wants to donate it to a future Paterno museum.

“And eventually that will happen,” he said.

Fisher said allegations and sanctions can’t diminish Paterno’s impact, especially on the many who have played for him or cheered for his teams.

“His legacy really is the influence he had on so many people,” Fisher said. “When you look at Jimmy Cefalo, Scott Radecic, Matt Millen, Todd Blackledge and others who have gone on to do great things in their lives … there’s the legacy. And if you multiply that by a couple thousand and you get a sense of his influence. Plus 46 years of students who could call Joe their coach.

“Those people are his legacy. His wins were not his legacy in my mind. His legacy is the people.”

Prato said he is often asked what became of the Paterno statue. Some thought it might find a new home at the All-Sports Museum.

“I hope some day, maybe by the 25th anniversary of his death, the statue will be back up, raised back up from this disgrace,” Prato said.

Prato is among those hoping the world will one day see Paterno in a more positive light again.

“His presence continued, even when he wasn’t here with all of the hullabaloo with the trial and the statue and everything,” Prato said.

“I think Joe’s legacy is still to be determined.”

CDT reporters Jessica VanderKolk and Matt Carroll contributed to this report.