For Psu Alums, It's Still About Joe

Posted: January 13, 2012

THERE WAS NO unruly throng flowing through the wide parking lots of King of Prussia last night, just an orderly single-file line of well-dressed Penn State alums filing into a carpeted hotel meeting room with a stage decked out in soothing flowers and tall potted plants.

Despite an air of hostility toward a news media that one questioner accused of "McCarthyism," there was never a thought of flipping over any of the news vans lined up on the outskirts of the Radisson Hotel Valley Forge.

Yet, in a kinder and gentler way, the more than 650 people who packed a so-called "town hall" meeting with already-embattled new president Rodney Erickson were animated by the same basic instincts that caused some students to riot in the streets of State College two months earlier: Anger focused much more on the firing of football icon Joe Paterno than on the child-sex-abuse scandal and coverup that provoked it, and on shock and despair over the implosion of a campus football culture with quasi-religious overtones.

And so the first two questions tossed at Erickson from the floor of largely disaffected alums - and many of those that followed - dwelled on how the university could ever make things right with Paterno and why the university board of trustees was so quick to fire the winningest coach in major-college history.

"He [Paterno] is the single most-important Penn Stater in the history of the university," declared the first questioner, who said that he was a 1973 graduate and the son of a faculty member, causing the room to burst into applause.

"Our overall thing is the lack of due process for Joe Paterno - he was a scapegoat," said Steve Tross, a 1974 Penn State grad who lives in Paoli and works in marketing, one of the night's early arrivals. "Everybody else is getting due process, except Joe. . . . I think there was a rush to judgment."

(Indeed, Steve Garban, chair of the Board of Trustees, and John Surma, board vice chairman, felt it necessary to issue a statement in response to these and similar questions at the town-hall meetings.

"Many alumni have asked why the Board decided to remove Coach Paterno from his position as Head Football Coach," they wrote. "Given the nature of the serious allegations contained in the Grand Jury Report and the extraordinary circumstances then facing the University, the Board's unanimous judgment was that Coach Paterno could not be expected to continue to effectively perform his duties, and that it was in the best interests of the University to make an immediate change in his status. . . . Coach Paterno remains employed by the University as a tenured faculty member and the university is treating him financially as if he had retired at the end of the 2011 football season.")

If last night's meeting - the second in a series of three confabs that started in Pittsburgh on Wednesday and ends tonight in New York - showed anything, it was how difficult it will be for Penn State to come to terms with November's indictment of Paterno's former defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, on charges of molesting at least 10 boys going as far back as 1994 and the deepening questions over the university's handling of the matter.

No one seemed to better embody the conflict - and a stunningly persistent sense of denial - than Erickson, the genteel, white-haired former provost at center stage. Erickson, signed on to guide Penn State through 2014, repeatedly said that his goal was "the guiding principle of openness and communication" - but those communications last night ignored the overwhelming failures of Penn State's leaders in the Sandusky case.

"It grieves me very much when I hear people say that this is the Penn State scandal," Erickson told one questioner last night. "This is the Sandusky scandal. This is not Penn State."

Never once did Erickson, or anyone else, even mention that two former top Penn State officials - then-vice president Gary Schultz and athletic director Tim Curley - face criminal charges for allegedly lying about their handling of Sandusky.

And for all the talk last night about Paterno, concerns that the coach should have done more when learning in 2002 about a locker-room allegation against Sandusky were never mentioned.

Indeed, for Erickson and Penn State, the new and belated drive for transparency still feels like what Richard Nixon's Watergate-era White House famously called a "modified limited hangout" - and that may be giving this tour too much credit. Just this week, Erickson revealed that trustees and top officials were briefed on the Sandusky probe months before the indictment, raising new questions about what Penn State's leaders knew and when they knew it.

Many alumni asked - and rightfully so - why top trustees are not at these gatherings, or why the minutes of the Nov. 9 board meeting at which Paterno and then-president Graham Spanier were ousted have not been made public. Others, including the Penn State faculty, still seek a real, independent probe conducted by outsiders. They shouldn't hold their breaths. Not when the No. 1 man in Happy Valley is still clinging to the fantasy that this is only "the Sandusky scandal."

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