Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Football is back, but Penn State remains embattled

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Elizabeth Morgan wasn't looking forward to the task in front of her. The veterinarian with close-cropped reddish-brown hair had always been more comfortable playing with the animals on her central Pennsylvania farm.

Nearly two and a half years have passed since the university removed the large bronze statue of Paterno with his finger in the air in victory from its perch outside the stadium. Every game, fans leave mementos at the grassy spot where it used to stand. (Bobby Chen)
Nearly two and a half years have passed since the university removed the large bronze statue of Paterno with his finger in the air in victory from its perch outside the stadium. Every game, fans leave mementos at the grassy spot where it used to stand. (Bobby Chen)Read more

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Elizabeth Morgan wasn't looking forward to the task in front of her.

The veterinarian with close-cropped reddish-brown hair had always been more comfortable playing with the animals on her central Pennsylvania farm.

But there she stood one day last month, before a couple of hundred people, cameras and a microphone in her face, determined to tell Pennsylvania State University's trustees exactly what she thought of them and their handling of the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal.

Morgan knocked the trustees for accepting the NCAA-imposed sanctions, for swallowing the report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh that blamed Penn State leaders for a cover-up, for paying out nearly $60 million to Sandusky victims, yet sparing the charity where he groomed his targets.

Then for the wind-up.

"Three years ago, you fired an employee of 61 years of service for a failure of leadership," she said of coach Joe Paterno. "I suggest that most of you should have been fired long ago."

The audience erupted in applause.

This was Morgan's fourth address to the trustees since Sandusky's 2011 arrest launched a firestorm that raged from the trustees' boardroom to downtown businesses to the student body and the football field - and that still won't subside.

Even after more than three years, thousands of alumni and supporters like Morgan are unwilling to accept the Sandusky narrative that casts their school - and its once-beloved coach - in a pejorative light. She belongs to Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, a grassroots organization that grew out of the scandal and that has mounted a noisy, all-out effort to exonerate Penn State and Paterno.

With 96,000 students - 70 percent of them Pennsylvanians - 24 campuses from Erie to Abington, and a $4.6 billion budget, Penn State is one of the state's largest educational institutions and its sixth-largest employer. About three-quarters of its current students weren't enrolled when the scandal broke. Two new football coaches and presidents have since been installed. Nearly every victim lawsuit has been settled. Applications are up, and donations are strong.

And on Saturday night, Penn State returned to bowl action.

Yet 40,000 people have added their names to the effort to somehow wrest control of the university and rewrite history, including prominent professionals nationwide - lawyers, educators, a top government aide. They've captured most of the trustee board's nine alumni seats, packed its meetings, and put the leadership on the defensive.

In what has shaped up as a battle for the soul of the university, they are pitted against a majority of trustees who staunchly defend their decision to have the university accept responsibility for allowing a predator to roam its campus for so long and institute reforms so that can never happen again.

As critics, including the state treasurer and Senate majority leader, continue their courtroom attacks against the Freeh report and the NCAA - hearings are scheduled for early 2015 - Penn State president Eric Barron last month did the once-unthinkable: He agreed to review the Freeh report, cracking the door for those who have been pushing for the board to repudiate the findings, including that Paterno, former president Graham B. Spanier, and two former administrators conspired to cover up the sex abuse by the assistant football coach.

"The tide has turned," said Ted Brown, one of nine alumni-elected trustees on the 32-member board.

Nowhere is the fallout more evident than in State College, as a few days on campus last month showed. Paterno, Spanier, and Sandusky may be long gone, but their shadows extend over Happy Valley.

A royal reception

On a Wednesday night, hundreds packed a ballroom at the Penn Stater. The occasion was the ceremony for the Michael P. Murphy Distinguished Citizen Award, bestowed by the Navy League of the United States' Central Pennsylvania Council.

Murphy, a Penn State alum, was a Navy SEAL killed in 2005 by Taliban forces in Afghanistan, a battle later chronicled in the movie Lone Survivor. For his actions, he posthumously received the U.S. Medal of Honor, the military's highest decoration.

The crowd that filled the ballroom came to fete a 74-year-old woman also praised for "true courage" in the face of adversity as well as for her lifelong contributions to the community. As she sat, a video tribute played - her wedding photos, family pictures, images of school and football games - and a Creedence Clearwater Revival song coursed through speakers:

Oh Suzie Q

Oh Suzie Q

Oh Suzie Q

Baby, I love you, Suzie Q.

In a radiant red suit with white trim, Sue Paterno took the stage. A standing ovation followed.

In the audience that night was Roger Roll, 72, a retired Marine Corps master gunnery sergeant and Penn State grad who had traveled more than 200 miles from his home in Luray, Va. In a quiet moment before the ceremony, Roll had approached Paterno's widow and told her a story: When his unit was stationed in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, awaiting deployment to Kuwait City, Roll, like the other Marines, had received a ceremonial coffee mug.

He sent his to coach Paterno: He wanted the coach to know that Penn State grads were on the front line, doing their part. Weeks later, Roll received in the mail an autographed photo of Paterno, standing with one foot up on the stadium bleachers.

As he recounted the story to Paterno's widow, he grasped her hand.

"I just want to say how much I love Joe Paterno," Roll said.

Signs of the times

The three cutout numerals - each seven feet high and four feet wide - stood against the bookstore wall, covered in signatures.

During a Thursday stroll down College Avenue, Ralphine Gentzler had popped into the store. She leaned close to the Number 4, looking for her name. Then she found it. "Love ya, Joe!" she had scrawled.

Since the numerals - "4-0-9" - appeared in October in the Student Book Store as part of a promotion for a movie in support of Paterno, more than 12,000 others had added their names and messages.

The number represents the number of football victories Paterno would have if the NCAA hadn't vacated 111 of his wins dating to 1998, when the alleged cover-up of Sandusky abuse started. Since the sanctions, "409" has become shorthand for the injustice some say Paterno and Penn State have endured - a sentiment that resonates along College Avenue.

A few blocks away, the front window of a diner boasts a sign that reads "Honor Joe." In the other direction, the 409 Pizza & WINgS restaurant opened over the summer.

Gentzler, a 75-year-old retired educator who splits her time between homes in State College and Cincinnati, had stumbled upon the long lines for the 409 signature boards in October and happily signed.

She's a Shippensburg University grad, but her husband, Gary, as well as their daughter, son, and grandson attended Penn State. She and her husband have gone to football games for years.

"It was thrilling to walk up and sign it," she said.

'For my family'

About an hour before the Friday board meeting was to start, Morgan quickly downed lunch at a restaurant in the Penn Stater.

"If it wasn't for how important this is, I wouldn't be here," she said. "And I have to say, a lot of it is for my family and my father."

Her grandfather watched games when they were played on the lawn of Old Main. Her grandmother inscribed her initials in the clock tower of Old Main. Her father, brothers, and aunt are alums.

Morgan, a 49-year-old Clearfield County native, has been attending Nittany Lions games since the third grade. As a Penn State student, she was a little sister to a fraternity, rode on the equestrian team, and graduated with a biology degree in 1987.

Penn State was the family's anchor, a geographical reference point for their existence, the place she grew up on.

"There really isn't anything else," Morgan said.

After Sandusky's indictment and Paterno's firing - when Penn State was pounded in headline after headline - Morgan felt helpless. "You didn't quite know what to do and you desperately wanted to do something," she recalled.

She hadn't spent much time on Facebook but was online one night after the scandal broke and saw concerned groups pop up: "I just hit every single one, join, join, join."

An architectural engineer from Chicago started "We Intend to Vote Out the Penn State Board of Trustees." That grew into Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, which issued its first statement Jan. 6, 2012, blasting the board and calling for due process for Paterno, Spanier, former athletic director Timothy Curley, and former administrator Gary Schultz.

Early on, the group fumbled a bit, trying to figure out how to be effective, Morgan said. Its first major event was an informational picket outside a trustees meeting.

"I was running around, going to the Dollar Store to buy paper and pens and to Lowe's to buy wooden stakes. We sat there that night making signs in the hotel," she said.

The next day, they stood in 10-degree weather, encouraging supporters to honk.

Just about every trustees' meeting is now filled with critics who verbally pummel the board at every chance. Student government leaders have even become targets, heckled at board meetings by critics and sent nasty e-mails for supporting the board leadership's positions.

Not all are members of the Penn Staters' group, though it is perhaps the best-organized and farthest-reaching. Its members include Christian Marrone, chief of staff to the U.S. secretary of Homeland Security and a 1997 alumnus who played football; Spencer Niles, dean of education at the College of William and Mary; Ryan Bagwell, a 2002 alum and former journalist who has fought for access to public records around the scandal, raising more than $51,000 for the fight; Ray Blehar, a federal government analyst who parses scandal developments; and former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Franco Harris, who has been touring the state, holding panels titled "Upon Further Review," criticizing the board, the NCAA, and Freeh.

Morgan has helped maintain the Penn Staters' Facebook page, met with politicians, and served on a committee that endorsed alumni-elected candidates for the trustees board. "This wasn't my thing," said Morgan, who likes to ride and show horses. "My thing was to get down on the floor and play with dogs or go to the barn and talk to a cow."

More than a game

As tens of thousands gathered at chilly Saturday tailgates outside Beaver Stadium, Edward and Susan Beck Wilson readied their menu. The Temple Owls were in town, so their popular tailgate - once featured on the Food Network - had to match. There were "Pluck the Owls Seasoned Pretzel Bites" and "Owl Gone Baked Hash Brown Casserole."

Sharing space on the table was a staple that now appears at every game: a plea for donations to build "Joe's Bench."

Nearly 21/2 years have passed since the university removed the large bronze statue of Paterno with his finger in the air in victory from its perch outside the stadium. At every game, fans leave mementos at the grassy spot where it used to stand. Before the Temple game, someone had placed a photo of Gov. Corbett, captioned: "One does not simply fire Joe Paterno." Nearby was a sign reading: "Joe Paterno, Penn State's Spirit in the Sky."

And supporters like the Wilsons, alumni who split their time between homes in State College and Hudson, Ohio, and drive a minivan with the license plate SuePSU1, are helping raise money for a new bronze statue - this one with Paterno sitting on a bench clutching a book. Already the effort has garnered $100,000 - a third of the projected cost.

"We want our kids to be able to sit down and talk to Joe," said Susan Beck Wilson, 64, a retired education director for a national craft retailer.

Penn State beat Temple, 30-13: For the first time in years, the Lions were heading to a bowl game.

Penn State football may be back to normal. The contest for the control of and direction of the university goes on.

215-854-4693 @ssnyderinq