Erin McCarthy is a senior at Penn State majoring in print and digital journalism major with a political science minor. She has interned at The Philadelphia Inquirer for the past three years. She was a 2016 summer sports intern there and is in her second season as the paper’s Penn State football intern. She is also a founding member of the investigative team at Penn State’s student newspaper, the Daily Collegian, and in June finished in the top three of the Hearst journalism awards’ individual writing national championship in San Francisco. “Erin, from the Philadelphia suburb of Newtown Square, is the daughter of Mike and Sheila McCarthy. She has two brothers: Mike, 19, and Sean, 13.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Joe Paterno’s cuffed khakis, black-and-white Nike Airs, and square-framed glasses. An Orange Bowl trophy to commemorate the coach’s undefeated 1968 and ‘69 seasons. A faded “Joe: Don’t Go Pro” poster, dating from the moment he turned down a lucrative NFL coaching offer. A framed letter from President Gerald Ford to Paterno.
All the items can be found in Penn State’s All-Sports Museum, the ultimate fan shrine to Penn State athletics, located inside the walls of Beaver Stadium.
While the museum honors all 31 sports at the university, a hierarchy quickly becomes clear. The largest section belongs to Nittany Lions football.
Opened in 2002 and operated by Penn State, the museum details each era of the university’s most famous team in painstaking detail, with plaques and videos that run in a continuous loop.
Old black-and-white game film plays on one side of the room. On another tape, current coach James Franklin talks about the family atmosphere in the football offices. “Unrivaled,” a motto of his tenure, pops up on the screen. Audio of cheering fans plays.
“Bill O’Brien and James Franklin. A New Era,” the plaque below that exhibit reads. “Bill O’Brien took the reins of the Penn State program in January 2012,” it begins.
What’s missing is any mention of how Paterno left his post as head coach.
Small photo captions make indirect reference to the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse case. One, under a picture of the 2012 squad, includes a mention that the team endured “the most trying period in the program’s history.”
Of course, the room remembers the late coach Paterno – in State College, it would be a sin not to – but the museum recalls virtually nothing about the sad events that marked the final months of his life.
Penn State can and should do better.
Granted, Paterno’s legacy hasn’t solidified. Even nearly five years after his fall, much is uncertain – and the truth is, many people still cannot make peace with that uncertainty.
“This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life,” Paterno himself wrote about the Sandusky case in a November 2011 statement. “With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”
Arguments surrounding Paterno’s life and death remain commonplace in Happy Valley. On one side are those who believe he consciously covered up for a pedophile once on his coaching staff and, by his inaction, enabled further abuse. On the other are those who defend him to the bitter end, noting he was never regarded as a criminal suspect and who believe he was perhaps naïve and certainly fooled by a brutal criminal.
No one can say whether Paterno will ultimately be remembered as hero or villain, or as a human being who fell somewhere in between.
What’s clear is the university fails every time it blatantly ignores that uncertainty and glosses over the last chapter in his life, which changed Penn State forever. Omitting that Paterno was fired, rightly or wrongly, because of the Sandusky scandal will be even more grievous 20 or 30 years from now, when memories fade.
Already, this year’s graduating class never saw a Paterno-coached team on the field, though they are familiar with the run of tragedy that occurred during the 2011-12 school year: the child sexual abuse allegations against former defensive coordinator Sandusky; the firing of Paterno and other administrators; and, the finding that university officials had reason to be suspicious of Sandusky and failed to act.
Then there was the news on “SportsCenter” that cold January morning.
With the pain of the scandal still raw, Paterno’s death from cancer further complicated emotions for the Penn State faithful.
This was the loss of someone families had welcomed into their living rooms each autumn Saturday for 46 years. But it is was deeper, too. During his storied coaching career, Paterno earned the nickname “JoePa,” everyone’s old man. He was endearing at times, crotchety at others.
Either way, for Penn Staters, there was faith that Paterno stood for the right things – success with honor, in local shorthand. And just at the moment their faith was shaken, fans lost him.
While Paterno was alive, a statue of him was erected outside Beaver Stadium. Fans flocked to it like Mecca, waiting in line to snap photographs of their young children next to the bronze likeness of the coach.
After the scandal broke and Paterno was fired, students and alumni went to the statue to show solidarity. Two months later, when Paterno died, they went to mourn.
Then it was gone, removed by the university that 10 years earlier had created it in Paterno’s honor. The removal occurred one day before the NCAA’s announcement of sanctions on the football program: a four-year post-season bowl ban; a $60 million fine; a loss of scholarships; and, the vacating of more than 100 Paterno victories.
While most of the sanctions have since been rescinded, their existence only heightened the tension surrounding Paterno’s legacy.
Last year, during rallies celebrating the removal of some sanctions, chants of “Where’s the statue?” echoed through downtown State College.
The staunch Paterno supporters called the restoration of his 409 career wins a victory. But quickly they were back to fighting again, crusading for widespread acknowledgment that their idol was innocent of any wrongdoing.
It sometimes seems the sides will never stop arguing over Paterno’s legacy long enough to once again enjoy their school and its beautiful setting.
Perhaps, however, it is better off that the town, the school and the alumni remain a bit shaken, accepting the uncertainties surrounding the scandal and the part Paterno’s action or inaction played in it all, with a vow to remain vigilant going forward.
Back at the museum, Penn State should note the unsettling nature of that final chapter in Paterno’s life and not make it its mission to gloss over what happened.
Instead, the mission should be to never forget.