No cheers for Penn State

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 8, 2011

By Mark Wineka
SALISBURY — In the 33 years since I graduated from Penn State, I’ve never missed an opportunity to let people know that’s where I went to school.
Today it’s the last thing I want to acknowledge.
JoePa, the iconic coach. The national championships. The unadorned, pristine white uniforms. The Nittany Lion mascot. Linebacker U. Happy Valley.
They mean little in the wake of the weekend’s sickening, disgusting, embarrassing news that Jerry Sandusky, former defensive coordinator for the Penn State football team, faces multiple felonies for sexually abusing at least eight boys over a 15-year-period.
Among the most disturbing revelations have been that Sandusky mentored these at-risk boys through his Second Mile program and that, given his high standing in the Penn State program, brought them to the campus where they had sleepovers.
Even worse, grand jury testimony reveals that a graduate assistant for head coach Joe Paterno in 2002 saw a naked Sandusky sexually assaulting a 10-year-old in the showers at Penn State’s athletic complex.
The graduate assistant — now Penn State’s receivers coach and recruiting coordinator — told Paterno what he saw, and Paterno reported it to his bosses.
But it appears that’s all they did. There was no rush to alert the police and make sure Sandusky’s contact with children ceased immediately. Instead, it looks as though Penn State officials’ primary concern was to protect the university and its money-making football program.
The best question I’ve heard someone ask is, what if Sandusky had been seen assaulting Paterno’s grandson? Or the graduate assistant’s young brother? You can bet they would have responded quite differently.
It’s amazing the parallels between the Penn State scandal and those involving bishops in the Catholic church. How quick we are to look the other way to protect sacred institutions.
Unless you’ve drunk the Penn State football Kool-Aid for as long as I have, it’s difficult to know what Paterno means to students and alumni.
I have a couple JoePa stories from my college days. In my junior year, I earned an internship with the Penn State sports information department. In return for a term’s worth of credits, I covered some sporting events and wrote features on Penn State athletes for their hometown newspapers.
In the first couple of days, the sports information director took me to meet all the coaches, and a gracious Paterno spent a few minutes asking about my family, home and what my handicap in golf was.
“My handicap is golf,” I said.
He laughed at the tired joke.
Later that spring, I sat a few rows back from Paterno when some out-of-town producers visited State College and gave a room of invited guests a special premiere showing of “Something for Joey.” The television movie told the story of Penn State running back John Cappelletti’s dedicating the Heisman Trophy to his younger brother, who was dying of childhood leukemia.
The next football season, the sports information department paid me to stand on the Penn State side for home games and answer the telephones to the press box. They hardly rang, so most of the time I watched Paterno’s overcoat, which he would bring over before kickoff.
It became my “I-watched-Paterno’s-coat” story that I’ve told a hundred times over the years.
While I was in school, Paterno missed a game one Saturday because his young son had seriously injured himself when he knocked his head falling off a trampoline. I remember how glum Happy Valley was that weekend until news came that the boy was going to be all right.
In school, it also was a treat to pass Paterno, as he walked along the north end of campus on his way to and from practice. Some years back, he and his wife donated millions of dollars toward a new library.
How many university libraries are named for a football coach?
Paterno also was known for running a clean program and disciplining players who ran afoul of team rules or had scrapes with the law. He was more powerful, more influential than the university president. Really.
Long after graduation, I still looked forward to every Penn State football season, knowing the bespectacled Paterno was going to be running out with the team, with his weird rolled-up pants, white socks and black shoes.
I remember calling my terminally ill mother in 1987, after Penn State defeated the University of Miami for the national championship. I yelled to her over all the celebrating in my house that Penn State and Paterno had won that game of all games for her.
I always have told people the amazing thing about Paterno was that he was an assistant coach at Penn State for 17 years before he became head coach. No one remembers that, because he has been head coach for 46 years.
And, of course, there’s his age — 84. And the all-time win total — 409.
All these years, because of the constant that was Paterno, it would have felt right to watch Penn State games in black and white, not color.
Now Paterno’s days are numbered, if not already over. They should be.
Penn State football and Paterno have lost any meaning for me. I hope they do again some day, but I can’t stomach them for now.
The Nittany Lions play the Nebraska Cornhuskers this Saturday. For the first time since I can remember, I don’t care.
Happy Valley is sad, sad, sad.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or