STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- There's an obvious dividing line, and while it's been that way for decades, it represents something more now.
For about one mile, College Avenue separates the main campus of Penn State University to the north from downtown State College to the south, the two entities intrinsically tied together as the big school in the small town in the middle of nowhere, with the usual town-and-gown ups and downs. State College needs Penn State, but the relationship is never without its hiccups.
In the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, though, something else has become obvious: North of College Avenue, two years after this death, Joe Paterno is hard to find. South, in the rest of town, his presence remains everywhere.
Not that Penn State was ever really draped in tributes to its longtime football coach, but aside from the Paterno Library towering over the heart of campus, and the Peachy Paterno ice cream still sold at the University Creamery, it's hard to find anything relating to the man most credited with helping to take an anonymous cow college and, as its most visible public face, turn it into the sprawling, widely respected research university it is today.
On the east side of Beaver Stadium, you would never know that a Paterno statue stood here for a decade, eventually serving as both lightning rod and rallying point before being removed on a July 2012 morning. At the official Penn State Bookstore on campus, rows of Penn State merchandise feature nothing related to Joe Paterno. Search for Paterno on the bookstore's website and get met with, "We're sorry, we couldn't find any items that matched your search."
Just down the hill, across College Avenue, the unaffiliated Penn State apparel shops sprinkled through downtown State College are a different story. The familiar cardboard cutout of Paterno stands in one window, staring back toward campus. Some stores have full displays of Paterno merchandise, with supportive T-shirts, photos, banners with famous Paterno quotes and other memorabilia. The "Proud to Support Penn State Football" signs that sprung up after the scandal still adorn shop windows. The late-night cheap pizza joint still promotes "JOPA" as the last four digits of its delivery phone number. Instead of the usual "OBX" or "HHI" vacation stickers, cars drive with "JVP" on back windows.
It should go without saying that the personal feelings of anyone associated with Penn State more than pale in comparison to what Jerry Sandusky's victims must have gone through, and that they are truly the only actual victims in the scandal that sullied a football program and a university. From a distance, then -- for an alumnus who grew up attending games at Beaver Stadium, and has deep family ties to a university that always made a show of supposedly doing things the right way -- the most apt description of that infamous week in November 2011 was "surreal." It was maddening and heartbreaking, disgusting and sad.
Now, 26 months after the Jerry Sandusky scandal rocked Happy Valley, and two years since Paterno's death on Jan. 22, 2012, it's hard to figure out just what to do with the memory of the most important -- and now most divisive -- person in the history of Penn State.
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Beaver Stadium towers over the landscape. You can catch glimpses of it from miles away, the fourth-largest stadium in the world (capacity: 106,572), standing like a giant erector set on the edge of campus, surrounded by cow pastures. It's not nestled into the surrounding campus like those at many other colleges. From afar, it looks as if it's standing on a pedestal, with everything else in its shadow.
You can still find Joe Paterno inside, but you have to wait.
Penn State's All-Sports Museum is built under the stands of the south end zone. While Beaver Stadium and Penn State football dwarf it above, here football is hardly treated any differently. The football display is a bit larger than the rest, of course, and it is saved for last on a two-floor tour of most of Penn State's varsity sports. But the goal of the museum, which opened in 2002 -- the year after Mike McQueary first reported Jerry Sandusky to Paterno -- is to showcase all sports and not treat football as the behemoth that it is. It's a noble, idealistic display that can never actually represent reality.
"We haven't gotten the new coach in there yet," the woman at the entrance says.
"Things move a lot faster now, don't they?" I say.
"Well that's the statement of the century," she says with a laugh.
More space is devoted to Paterno than any other coach, but his presence doesn't dominate the exhibits. He's there, a long part of history, and then he's not. Bill O'Brien is heavily featured, but now he's gone too. Phase II of the post-Paterno era is beginning, with O'Brien off to the NFL's Houston Texans, Vanderbilt's James Franklin installed as the new head coach and a new university president still to come.
Franklin, born and raised in Langhorne, Pa., and a former star quarterback at East Stroudsburg University, is in his first weeks as Penn State's 16th football coach, a job that charges him with not only winning games under tough NCAA sanctions, as O'Brien did for two seasons as Paterno's successor, but also serving as a publicity man for the program. He's confident and outspoken, the type of coach who's ready and willing to confront the divide in the community head-on.
When Franklin was hired, Sue Paterno, Joe's wife of 50 years, released a statement saying, "On behalf of myself and my family I want to welcome Coach James Franklin and his wife Fumi to Penn State. His deep ties to Pennsylvania and his exceptional coaching record have prepared him well for his new position. We wish Coach Franklin great success and we know he will find broad support and encouragement from Penn Staters everywhere."
It's a rallying call, of sorts. The Paterno family continues to fight for its patriarch's legacy -- its lawsuit against the NCAA is moving on to the discovery phase -- while trying to support the future of the football program that he built into a powerhouse. "Paterno people" -- not the Paternos themselves, but the vocal wing of Penn Staters still attempting to rally around the idea of their idol as a scapegoat and cling to the past -- have already been blamed for pushing O'Brien to the NFL.
The Franklin era begins with no former Paterno assistants, as previous holdovers Ron Vanderlinden and Larry Johnson are gone, although former Paterno wide receiver Terry Smith is reportedly on the new staff. But ties to the past are growing ever thinner, bringing about more quick change in a program that for so long did its best to avoid it. There was always comfort in the familiar. Part of the Penn State fan base undoubtedly still holds out hope, however slim, that something will come out to exonerate Paterno, who was never charged with a crime but who himself admitted that with the benefit of hindsight, he wished he'd done more.
But we're better off accepting what happened, ignoring the fringe conspiracy theorists who get miscast as representative "Penn State fans" and recognizing the fatal mistakes that were made with an eye toward the future. Change is inevitable and necessary. Still, especially with former president Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz still awaiting trial for perjury and failure to report child abuse, among other charges, and much else left to be settled, it's impossible not to wonder what it will take for change to be universally accepted.
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Two years ago, Paterno's funeral procession arrived here at Spring Creek Cemetery after a slow trip down College Avenue, which was lined several people deep with supporters on both sides of the street.
The gravesite is tasteful and modest, a small patch of grass like any other, with a gorgeous hilltop view of Mount Nittany through the leafless winter trees. It's not hard to find. The grave marker itself is plain and unassuming, tucked into the corner of the plot, but from across the cemetery there's no mistaking it.
Piled around the grave of Joseph Vincent Paterno are stacks of the same sort of stuff sold all around town with Penn State logos: Hats, mostly, plus various other items (Penn State earplugs?). There are wreaths, a poem, a stand-up sign that says "Joe Paterno: Penn State's Spirit in the Sky" and another sign saying "You Can't Change History: 409," referring to the Division I wins record that Paterno set before it was stripped by the NCAA. (His official total stands at 298, good for 12th all-time.)
You may roll your eyes; the display may draw your ire. Here, though, it's quiet and personal. Paterno meant a lot of things to a lot of people, and that's not something that can always be instantly let go. For many people in State College, Paterno is all they knew. Even through down years on the football field in the early 2000s, through a wave of "Joe Must Go," he was still everyone's lovable grandfather. If you saw him on campus, or in town, you told everyone you knew. In the crowd at games, sometimes it felt like people reacted to Paterno's actions on the sideline as much as the team on the field.
There are obvious dangers to the hero worship of coaches, athletes, anyone -- from the outside, some would label it cult-like, especially at an isolated place like Penn State. And at few places has it collapsed on itself as it did at Penn State. But old habits die hard.
One day, someone at Penn State will have to decide what exactly to do with a man whose legacy can't be ignored but who certainly can't be held up as an infallible icon, either. We can search for a clear, concise legacy, but it's going to take a long time to get there, if we ever do. We all know that Paterno really did make a positive impact on many people's lives, that he helped propel Penn State to bigger and better things as a university. We all know that he won 409 games, regardless of what the official record says. Most of us recognize a significant failure late in his life, one that in the eyes of some is unforgivable enough to erase all of the rest, while to others is a huge mistake that fits, uncomfortably, as only part of the whole.
A statue is ultimately meaningless, as is a name on a stadium. You can choose to view Paterno however you'd like. Beneath the noise, there's still a human element to be dealt with. At some point, the university will have to acknowledge Paterno's presence without running away from the past. At some point, the rest of the community will have to face that reality from the other side. Penn State can take the lessons, good and bad over the last 60 years, accepting and acknowledging both noble achievements and glaring failures, and try to become better for it -- which is, after all, the entire point of a university.