Changes evident as Penn State football opens new era

New era, new look: Bill Belton dons Penn State's new uniform, including his name on the jersey and a blue ribbon on the helmet to support child-abuse victims. NABIL K. MARK / Centre Daily Times
New era, new look: Bill Belton dons Penn State's new uniform, including his name on the jersey and a blue ribbon on the helmet to support child-abuse victims. NABIL K. MARK / Centre Daily Times
Posted: September 03, 2012

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Sometime Saturday, amid the green mountainsides, the blue jerseys, and the still-white-hot anger of Penn State supporters, an old football era grudgingly, and ultimately unsuccessfully, yielded to a new.

Throughout State College, and most notably among those gathered at Beaver Stadium for new coach Bill O'Brien's losing debut, the hope and optimism generated by a new chapter in Nittany Lions football had mingled with the ongoing resentment fostered by the Jerry Sandusky child sexual-abuse scandal and the shame and sanctions that followed.

"PSU vs. the World . . . Game 1," tight end Garry Gilliam tweeted at 7:18 a.m., the spot-on message instantly sparking a buzz and then cheers among Penn State supporters who were lined up outside the Corner Inn restaurant on crowded College Avenue.

Those feelings - that Penn State, its football program, and the late Joe Paterno had been piled on unfairly - were as thick as the heat and humidity among the smaller-than-expected crowd of 97,186, and they probably weren't abated much when O'Brien's initial game ended in a stunning, 24-14 loss to Ohio University.

On this unusual day, the typically upbeat nature of Penn State supporters was counterbalanced by a lingering displeasure, which many wore, literally, on their backs. The most popular of the many protest T-shirts was one that, mimicking the school's ubiquitous rallying cry, defiantly stated, "We Are . . . Pissed Off".

"How can they punish all these kids and a whole school for what one man did?" Glenn Leiter, 60, of Bellefonte, Pa., who wore that shirt, said of the NCAA's July decision to fine Penn State $60 million, reduce its scholarships, and strip Paterno of 14 years worth of victories. "It's just not right. They had nothing to do with any of this."

But in the same pregame breath, Leiter, who has been coming to Penn State games since 1962, admitted this season opener had him more excited than any in at least 20 years.

As a cluster of students in "BILL-ieve!" T-shirts passed by, Leiter said of O'Brien, the former New England Patriots assistant who was hired in December, "I really like this guy. I think he's going to do a great job."

Though Ohio ostensibly was the opponent, the day's more prominent enemies were those who many in the Penn State community still hold responsible for what one fan called "overreacting" in the wake of Sandusky's November arrest on 45 counts of child abuse - the media; the university's trustees; the NCAA; and, in particular, NCAA president Mark Emmert.

"Emmert is a hypocrite," said JoAnne Ross of Philadelphia. "He was the president at LSU, where they graduate 67 percent of their players. And here he is coming down on us and Joe, who graduated 87 percent. I wish you and the rest of the media would tell the real story about Penn State."

The NCAA, which imposed the unprecedented penalties in response to the Freeh report's findings that Paterno and Penn State administrators had covered up Sandusky's behavior, also was a popular T-shirt target.

"409 Forever" read one, a reference to Paterno's win total before the NCAA stripped him of all those between 1998 and 2011. Another labeled the NCAA "Communist" and accused it of "Overstepping Its Bounds and Punishing the Innocent Since 1906."

Penn State's loss came in its first season opener since 1949 without Paterno, who died of lung cancer in January, on staff. His wife, Sue, and a daughter, Mary Kay - declining interviews because, a family spokesman said, "they did not want to be a distraction on this important day" - watched from the stadium suite that had been part of the university's lucrative retirement settlement with the coach.

In a nearby suite's window, a sign was visible that read "Due process for PSU, JVP."

At the Paternos' nearby McKee Street home, several cars were parked outside before the game, and a lone blue sign - "Proud to Support Penn State Football" - rested against a front window.

Meanwhile, four miles away, at Sandusky's eerily secluded home at the end of Grandview Road, there was little visible morning activity, though one of the disgraced ex-PSU assistant's neighbors had placed a "We Support the Victims of Child Abuse" sign in his front yard.

Elsewhere, at Paterno's isolated grave site in a remote cemetery on the southern edge of town, there were some floral bouquets left near the simple headstone but few other traces of recent visitors.

Inside Beaver Stadium

O'Brien's first game had been eagerly anticipated, if for no other reason than it was hoped it might put to rest at last the sordid Sandusky episode that has rocked this once-peaceful Centre County campus and community.

In keeping with that desire to break with the past, the game-day atmosphere included several new elements that would have been anathema during Paterno's 45 years as head coach:

Quarterback Matt McGloin had a beard. Several of his Nittany Lions teammates had hair whose length the fussy old coach would never have tolerated. Everyone's uniforms included their names on the backs, a dramatic switch from Penn State's long-standing tradition of unadorned uniforms. The players wore blue-ribbon decals on their helmets in support of child-abuse victims.

When McGloin hit tailback Bill Belton on a 6-yard touchdown pass late in the first quarter, several Nittany Lions celebrated ostentatiously in and around the end zones, emotional displays that Paterno wouldn't have tolerated.

Maybe more notably, for all those who remember the conservative style that marked the Paterno era, O'Brien's team had linebacker Gerald Hodges returning kicks, and the Nittany Lions passed the ball on a fourth-and-2 play near midfield.

Afterward, an obviously crestfallen O'Brien was terse and sometimes irritable with reporters.

"It starts with me," he said, repeating that postgame assessment often enough to draw comparisons with Eagles coach Andy Reid. "I've got to coach a lot better."

It had all started out much better.

Just before kickoff, as the Nittany Lions reentered the field, they ran through the assembled Blue Band and 600 other Penn State athletes, a gesture meant to symbolize the hoped-for unity among all aspects of Penn State athletics and the wider university.

"After all we've been through, it was nice to get the focus back on football," said guard John Urschel. "There was a lot of emotion out there, in the stands and on the field. We made too many mistakes, but this was just one game."

All around Beaver Stadium, there were reminders of the Paterno era and the unimaginable end to what had been a legendary career, even in some cases where the university had gone out of its way to erase them.

The statue and shrine on the stadium's east side, erected to honor the late coach, had been removed earlier this summer, just after the Freeh report was issued. That entire grotto, including a large, semicircular stone wall, has been leveled and relandscaped to blend in seamlessly with its surroundings.

But beneath one of the young shade trees recently planted there, someone had placed a Paterno bobblehead and a floral bouquet, the ironic display attracting spectators eager to have their photos taken at the site. One fan, 9-year-old Mackenzie Conrad, wore a Paterno mask and mimicked the deposed statue's arm-thrust and upraised foot as she posed.

"It's like they want us to forget [Paterno] actually lived," said Pat Stephenson of Altoona. "It's sick."

The tradition of fans forming a goodwill gauntlet through which arriving players pass into the stadium was tweaked, O'Brien moving up the time of his team's arrival to 21/2 hours before game time.

A thick throng, many holding signs that read, "You Stayed With Us . . . Now We Stand With You" - references to all those returning players who didn't transfer - were there at 9:30 a.m. when, to the accompaniment of police sirens, the players' buses pulled up to the enormous stadium that, during Paterno's tenure, had grown to accommodate more than 107,000 fans.

Just before that appearance, the sight of an ESPN cameraman precipitated a loud round of booing. Many Penn State fans blame the media - and in particular ESPN - for what they view as a rush to judgment after news of Sandusky's arrest broke in November. The boos were soon followed by chants of "JOE PA-TER-NO! JOE PA-TER-NO!"

The theme of unity permeated the day's official ceremonies, including the pregame and halftime band performances. "We are," intoned the public-address announcer at the conclusion of the halftime show, "one university."

Some alumni took it upon themselves to form a Rally Ring. They envisioned an unbroken circle of hand-holding fans surrounding the stadium's perimeter to honor Sandusky's victims and symbolize Penn State unity.

"I just thought [the Rally Ring] would be a nice gesture," said Wendy Oakes, a 1982 graduate from San Francisco, and one of the ceremony's organizers.

But after a few hundred fans had linked hands, the line stretched into an area where spectators were unaware of its meaning and it quickly petered out.

And, despite taking an early lead against the Mid-American Conference opponent, so did Penn State.

As a result, the desperate hope that this football season, this dawn of the O'Brien era, would erase the last nine months' painful memories seemed considerably dimmer as long lines of cars exited the parking lots.

"There was a great atmosphere today," said O'Brien in one of his more expansive responses. "The fans were great. I want them to keep coming. And I want them to keep supporting this football team."

Contact Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or, or follow on Twitter @philafitz. Read his blog, "Giving 'Em Fitz," at

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