PSU leaders in a struggle to heal rift from firing
Joe Paterno acknowledges supporters gathered outside his house on Nov. 8 as the Penn State board pondered his fate.
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- In the snow-covered valley he made happy, a mournful calm followed Joe Paterno's passing Sunday.
The legendary coach's death muted the typical energy of college life on this 854-acre campus. At his Beaver Stadium statue, bagpipes wailed and young voices sang the alma mater. A women's basketball game at Rec Hall was preceded by a tearful moment of silence and a spontaneous standing ovation. Thousands gathered at an Old Main candlelight vigil.
But those respectful on-campus observances obscured an unresolved conflict, one that, given the bitterness at its heart, has the potential to haunt Pennsylvania State University long into its now Paterno-less future.
With the most compelling figure in this Shakespearean tragedy now having permanently exited the stage, the university must find a way to honor Mr. Paterno's career without diminishing the tragedy that ended it, and without further alienating the coach's family.
While there were always going to be sleepless nights for university administrators in a post-Paterno world, the Jerry Sandusky scandal that led to the coach's Nov. 9 firing turned a difficult scenario into a colossal nightmare.
Less than 24 hours after he had agreed to step down at season's end, Mr. Paterno was dismissed by a board of trustees that believed he failed to act appropriately after learning that Mr. Sandusky, his longtime defensive coordinator, allegedly had molested a young boy.
The board's action, widely perceived as hasty and indelicate, provoked a firestorm of criticism.
Now with his death, just 64 days after his lung cancer was made public and before any face-to-face reconciliation could occur, how will the university choose to answer questions made infinitely more complex by Mr. Paterno's death?
• Can the Paternos forgive the university and its trustees for the curt and legacy-scarring dismissal?
• Will the trustees, who angered the Paternos and alumni by dismissing Mr. Paterno over the phone, attend the funeral?
• Conversely, if there is going to be a large-scale, televised memorial service on campus, as many believe there should be, would the aggrieved family attend?
• How should it reach out to the aggrieved family? Aggressively? Or subtly?
• And, maybe most significantly -- for the long-term health of the university and the Nittany Lions program Mr. Paterno transformed -- will the family help Penn State reach out to its many alienated alumni and donors?
Perhaps tellingly, in a lengthy statement it released after Mr. Paterno's death, the family made no mention of the trustees or -- except in the formal name of a charity to which it directed donations -- Penn State. (It urged those making donations to contribute to a student-run charity, the Penn State-THON.)
In his final interview earlier this month, the ailing coach said he felt no bitterness toward the school that had employed him since 1950, the last 46 years as its iconic head football coach.
But now, little more than a week later, Penn State no longer has an opportunity to make peace with him.
"Sadly, I believe it means that the scar becomes more permanent," said Anthony Lubrano, a 1982 Penn State graduate, major donor, and friend of the Paterno family. "They had the opportunity to do it, and they chose not to. Now, they must suffer the consequences, whatever they may be."
The firing itself took place in a terse and clumsy phone conversation between the coach and the then vice chairman of the trustees, John Surma. In recent interviews, several trustees, while not apologizing for the firing, regretted the way it was handled.
Mr. Paterno's wife, Sue, in fact, called Mr. Surma immediately after her stunned husband had hung up.
"After 61 years, he deserved better," she said, before slamming down the phone.
As far as anyone knows, that was the last communication between the Paterno family and the university it served for six decades.
Subsequently, during three meetings aimed, in part, at assuaging their ongoing concerns about Mr. Paterno's firing, president Rodney Erickson assured alumni that the university would conduct some sort of tribute to commemorate Mr. Paterno's many contributions.
But Mr. Erickson refused to get more specific, saying only that he would sit down with Mr. Paterno when the Sandusky crisis quieted. In the third meeting he had with alumni, this one in New York, one grad blistered Mr. Erickson with this question: Did he plan to honor Mr. Paterno or was he just awaiting funeral services?
"Is the family upset? Of course," said an athletic department official who requested anonymity. "But there's one thing you need to remember about them. Sue and all five of the kids are Penn State graduates, loyal Penn State graduates. I'd be shocked if they were willing to cause permanent harm to their alma mater."
Joe and Sue Paterno contributed more than $4 million to the school over the years, most of which went to a library that now bears their name. The university's Catholic Center also bears Sue Paterno's name.
Trustee Michael DiBerardinis, deputy mayor for environmental and community resources in Philadelphia, said what came through in the trustees' Sunday conference call was "a deep sense of loss and grief ... particularly the folks who were close to coach Paterno and who either played for him, worked directly for him, or just knew him as a friend.
"There's a real interest in responding to the family's needs right now," he said. "It's important that the university and the board really pause here and recognize his accomplishments and distinguished history."
First Published January 23, 2012 12:00 am