By TIM DAHLBERG
It seemed almost cruel, as if Penn State hadn’t already been punished enough.
Reality intruded on Happy Valley once again Saturday afternoon. This time it was on full display for 97,186 of the faithful at Beaver Stadium to see.
It was supposed to be a day to forget about scandal and celebrate football. It turned out to be neither for a school that might need many more Saturdays before the mostly self-inflicted wounds even begin to heal.
On the field, the Nittany Lions crumbled under their first new coach in nearly a half century. Around the stadium, fans and former players seemed to be having just as much trouble letting the old coach go.
No one expected it to be easy to move on from the cult of Joe Paterno that pervaded everything Penn State. There’s too much baggage, too many NCAA sanctions and, yes, even too much guilt to get past.
But now everyone can see just how hard it will be.
It wasn’t so much losing to Ohio, a team whose previous claim to fame was winning something called the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Not in the matter the Nittany Lions did it, either, though falling apart in the second half at home to lose a game that seemed well in hand can’t be the way Bill O’Brien imagined his head coaching career would begin.
That’s fixable in the long run, though the NCAA sanctions will make it much more difficult. Penn State won’t have the depth of other teams because of scholarship limitations, and probably not the talent because top players don’t want to go to a school where they don’t have a chance of going to a bowl.
The reality is that the penalties Penn State agreed to in an effort to put the child abuse scandal in the past will hurt, and hurt badly. They’re supposed to, and even the promise of a new coach who does things like putting names on the back of uniforms and allowing players to listen to headphones can’t overcome that over the next few years.
What might not be fixable — at least in the near future — is the cloud of Paterno still hanging over the program. He may be dead, but he was everywhere Saturday, from the small bobblehead of Paterno where the big statue once was to the life-sized cardboard cutout that had a prominent place in a suite occupied by former running back Franco Harris.
More evidence that Penn State stalwarts just can’t let go was the sign attached to the figure just as the game started slipping away in the third quarter.
“Due process for PSU JVP,” it read.
Loyalty isn’t always a bad thing, especially when it comes to a coach who did much good over his 46 years as head coach before a horrible ending spoiled it all. But there’s a difference between fondly remembering the good years and glorifying the very cult that allowed a monster like Jerry Sandusky to roam the locker rooms of Penn State for years.
Still, fans brought flowers and other items to a makeshift shrine next to the bobblehead. One man, Chris Bartnik of Chantilly, Va., carried his own cutout of the former coach through the parking lots for everyone to see.
“I don’t think it’s fair,” he said, “to pretend Joe Paterno never existed.”
It’s not, though the argument has now mostly shifted to how he will be remembered. The battle Paterno supporters are now waging is one for his legacy, but what they don’t understand is that the wounds are still too raw for this to be a fight they can win.
To most of the country Paterno is either a villain who was more interested in protecting his program than young children or a doddering old man who had no idea what was going on around him. The things that happened around Penn State are so horrific that no one is particularly interested at this time in talking about his wins (409 of them before 111 were vacated by the NCAA), his influence on generations of young men, or his contributions to build the library on campus that bears his name.
That might change some as the years go by, but that’s reality today. The sooner Paterno supporters understand that, the sooner the school and the football team can begin to move on.
The opener against Ohio was the perfect opportunity to begin that process, at least on the field. The team was cheered at a big pep rally the night before, the run from the tunnel onto the field was electric, and the first half showed that it was possible for someone other than Paterno to coach Penn State football.
Getting fired up was one thing. Staying fired up was another, and by the second half the emotional gas tank they had been running on finally went dry.
An 11-point halftime lead became a 24-14 loss that doesn’t bode well for a program with bigger challenges ahead. For four long years, Penn State will be forced to compete at a huge disadvantage in the Big Ten, all with the knowledge that there will be no rewards waiting at the end of the season.
The tough times won’t end with the games. Sandusky is in prison, but the scandal lives on. There will be settlements with victims, payouts from university funds. And it could all be replayed again as early as January when former athletic director Tim Curley and university vice president Gary Schultz are expected to go on trial on charges they lied to a grand jury about the scandal and did not properly report a 2001 sexual assault accusation to authorities.
As painful as Saturday was for Penn State and its fans, what’s even worse is that the punishment is far from over.