Passion drives those who promise to restore Paterno’s name

Story posted January 1, 2014 in Best of CommMedia by Stephen Pianovich.

As a crowd jeered, “We want the truth!” “Put the statue back!” “Cowards!,” men and women in business attire left a meeting and boarded a van outside a hotel on a sun-baked September afternoon. A large figure emerged from the crowd, and in the middle of the road formed a one-man barricade.

Franco Harris’ dark beard is not as thick as it was in his playing days as a running back with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and his curly black hair has some gray on the sides. But the football great and former Penn State star is still a recognizable figure. On this day, he stood silently in protest against Penn State’s Board of Trustees.

Harris did not want to allow the van carrying a handful of board members to move forward. Literally or figuratively.

Such a scene would have been unimaginable two years ago. But there has not been a “normal” for Penn State since former football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was indicted on charges of child sex abuse in November 2011. The events have traumatized the university community: the firing of president Graham Spanier and legendary coach Joe Paterno; a board-commissioned investigation by former FBI director Louis Freeh; the removal of the Paterno statue; and NCAA sanctions against Penn State football.

Most of the trustees want to move forward, putting the trauma behind, but an army of protesters — alumni and others — stand in their way.

Harris and the other protesters share a disdain for the board of trustees, other university officials, the NCAA and the news media. Woven together from anywhere via social media, they employ blogs, billboards and letters to the editor to express their longing to restore Paterno’s legacy and make the trustees admit they made a mistake in firing him.

They show no signs of giving up.

“Two years ago, I had no clue I would be doing what I am doing,” Harris said. “And not only me, but there are so many people connected to this and involved in this. And none of this was planned, it wasn’t planned. But when you look at it, you say this was something that was needed. So, I’m glad so many people really stepped up.”

Harris’ showdown with the van occurred at a “March 4 Truth” rally held outside the September 2013 meeting of the board of trustees at the Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel in State College. About 150 people attended, many displaying signs spelling out messages of contempt. The targets included Penn State president Rodney Erickson, athletic director Dave Joyner, investigator Louis Freeh, NCAA president Mark Emmert and the media. It was clear that the board was target No. 1.

One woman dressed up in a joker hat and a clown nose carried a sign that read “Hey BoT, quit clowning around!”

Eileen Morgan, a 1990 Penn State graduate who resides in Woodbridge, Va., helped organize the event. She said she wanted to show the board that “we’re not going away.”

The van eventually got around Harris and went on its way, but it had to drive on the curb to do so. If the board of trustees is going to go forward, these protesters are trying their best not to make it easy.

Who’s who among the dissidents

Who are these protesters?

Many of them are alumni, but there are some non-Penn Staters as well. Filmmaker John Ziegler has referred to them as “our side.” In a 2012 editorial, Harrisburg’s Patriot-News called them “Joebots.”

While Harris is the most famous person in the mix, others have emerged as leaders. Different people have their own agendas, but as Morgan put it, there is a single focus. She said all the protest groups “started, of course, for one main reason, and that’s to right a wrong.”
“Truth” is the protesters’ favorite word, and they insist that the board and the news media have not dealt in facts. Their shared belief is that when the board fired Spanier and Paterno on Nov. 9, 2011, it made it appear that the university had played a role in Sandusky’s alleged crimes, even though the judicial process had not played out. The protesters denounce the Freeh Report, which concluded that Paterno and Spanier, along with former Penn State administrators Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, knew about Sandusky’s alleged child abuse but failed to stop him.

Among the protesters, the largest group is Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, known simply as “PS4RS.” The group began on Facebook and now has more than 9,000 likes. PS4RS wants all members who were on the board in November 2011 to resign. The group’s spokeswoman is Maribeth Schmidt, a Penn State graduate and public relations professional. She said the main objective is to “change the narrative and to communicate a more factual account of what we now know.”

PS4RS endorsed three candidates for the alumni positions on the board of trustees in each of the 2012 and 2013 elections. Four won three-year terms on the board: Anthony Lubrano in 2012, and Barbara Dolan, Ted Brown and William Oldsey this year. Nine of the board’s 32 seats belong to alumni, and Schmidt said PS4RS’s goal is to get three more endorsed candidates elected next year.

In addition to PS4RS, there are other notable feather-rufflers out there. The most outspoken is Ziegler, a media-basher based in Los Angeles. A Georgetown graduate, Ziegler had no connection to Penn State before the Sandusky story broke.

For his website,, Ziegler has produced a 32-minute documentary titled “The Framing of Joe Paterno” and a 10-chapter online book. Ziegler’s view is that there was a media “false narrative” about Paterno and Penn State, which resulted in a “rush to judgment.” Both of these phrases have become buzz terms used often by the protesters.

“It appeared to me from very early on in the story that the story was almost perfectly designed to exploit the many weaknesses of the modern news media,” Ziegler said. “And … they were set up to fall for a false narrative. The narrative made no sense, and my gut was telling me there was no evidence. And, frankly, the last two years have proven me to be correct.”

Ziegler made headlines in March when parts of his jailhouse interview with Sandusky aired on NBC’s “Today Show.” He followed that up with a heated discussion with Piers Morgan on CNN. Ziegler spent hours talking to Sandusky behind bars, and he also spent extended time with Sandusky’s wife, Dottie. Ziegler said he thinks his online book, “The Betrayal of Joe Paterno,” is more accurate than anything else written about the scandal.

Morgan and the other March 4 Truth co-organizer, Ray Blehar, often post blogs. Blehar, who earned his master’s from Penn State in 2008 and has worked in the field of government analytics, has written a rebuttal to the Freeh Report.

Freeh made his findings public at a press conference on July 12, 2012.  Freeh said his evidence implicating the Penn State officials was based on thousands of emails and hundreds of interviews (none, however, with Curley, Shultz, Spanier, Paterno or Sandusky). In June 2012, Sandusky was found guilty on 45 counts involving child sex abuse, and four months later he was sentenced to 30 to 60 years.

The protesters say the Freeh Report was just the trustees’ way of justifying their actions in November 2011.

“Now, when you look at it, you know that a lot of people failed,” Harris said of the board. “Was it their intention? I mean, I hope not. When we have leadership fail, it does hurt the whole university and everything connected to it. We had a leadership that failed Penn State.”

Less than two weeks after Freeh released his findings, Paterno’s statue was taken from its shrine outside Beaver Stadium, and the NCAA hit Penn State with historic penalties. The animosity was ratcheted up to a new high. Blehar said: “I thought I would write a report rebuttal to the Freeh report and be done. I figured, I’ll write it, there will be a hundred other alumni who write something, the university will rebut the Freeh report, they’ll change some things and we’ll get to a more judicious, fair result. And that didn’t happen.”

Blehar asks why more legal action was not taken against The Second Mile, the children’s charity

Sandusky ran, and the phrase “The Second Mile Sandusky Scandal” sits atop his blog. His writing, like anything on the Internet, can be seen by anyone, anywhere, at any time. Social media is the cohesive that has held the movement together, and whether it’s a comment on a story, blog post, article or letter to the editor, voices for or against the movement are expressed from around the globe.

“If this would have happened 10 years ago, before Facebook, before social media, I honestly believe we wouldn’t be where we are today,” Morgan said.

The Paterno factor

Joe Paterno’s legacy was being one of the greatest college football coaches of all time and a main figure in making Penn State the university that it is today. He coached at Penn State for 61 years. In his 46 years as head coach, his teams won two national championships, went undefeated five times, made 37 bowl appearances, and gave Paterno a record 409 victories. His teams’ graduation rates always ranked near the top in the country.

But that was before November 2011.

Paterno testified before a grand jury in 2011 that then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary told him in 2001 that he saw Sandusky doing something of a “sexual nature” with a boy in a shower at the Lasch Football Building. Paterno noted that Sandusky no longer worked for the University at the time, and he said he informed his supervisor, athletics director Tim Curley, about what McQueary had said. Later, after the story broke, Paterno told reporters, “With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.” Paterno died of lung cancer on Jan. 22, 2012, at the age of 84.

In State College, Paterno is still held in high regard. If someone walked through downtown, it would be impossible not to see reminders of the coach. It could be a painting of him with his patented rolled-up khakis and black shoes on a storefront window. It could be a t-shirt or other memorabilia sold at one of the shops. Or it might be a “409” bumper sticker on a car cruising down College Avenue — the same street where the coach’s funeral procession crept through town on a frigid afternoon, while students stood holding hands.

About 50 miles outside of State College on Route 322 East, a PS4RS-sponsored billboard reads, “You can’t cover up 61 years of success with honor,” and another, paid for by a fan, says, “Joe Paterno 409 wins.”

What a pedestrian in town won’t see anywhere is “298,” the number of wins Paterno officially was left with after the NCAA vacated all of Penn State’s wins from 1998 through 2011 as part of the sanctions.

It’s also not as easy to find reminders of Paterno on Penn State’s campus.

Sure, there are still plenty of students who wear “Joe Knows Football” shirts or other forms of Paterno homage. Paterno’s name still graces the campus library, to which he and his family donated millions of dollars and were instrumental in raising millions more. Dessert lovers can still buy Peachy Paterno ice cream at the on-campus Creamery. But the on-campus sandwich shop “Joegies” changed its name, and the tent village where students camp out the week leading up to home football games is now Nittanyville, not Paternoville.

The most notable tribute to Paterno was the bronze statue, standing nine feet tall and weighing close to 1,000 pounds, depicting Paterno running onto the field with his right index finger raised in the air. It no longer stands outside Beaver Stadium, the 107,282-seat stadium that expanded as Paterno’s teams achieved on the field.

Just after dawn on the morning of July 22, 2012, the statue was uprooted and moved to an undisclosed location. Barely 24 hours later, at a press conference 500 miles away at the NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis, Emmert laid out the sanctions for Penn State: a $60 million fine, a four-year postseason ban, scholarship reductions for the football team, and the vacating of victories.

The number 409 has become a rallying cry for those fighting for Paterno, and the site where his statue used to stand is filled with Paterno tributes every time the Nittany Lions play a home game. On Sept. 7, as Paterno’s successor, Bill O’Brien, prepared his team for its home opener in his second season, there were a few signs in the ground of what is now a small, grassy hill on the east side of the stadium. One read “We will not ‘Move Forward’ ” and bore a silhouette of Paterno’s statue. Five weeks later, after Penn State won a four-overtime thriller against Michigan, a vigil was held at the onetime statue site, and lights forming the numerals “409” burned long into the night.

Paterno has not been mentioned at Beaver Stadium since his firing, but he is seen in a black-and-white clip on the Jumbotron during a pregame video. It lasts no more than five seconds, but it’s guaranteed to draw a cheer.

The driving force

Fighting to restore Paterno’s name isn’t the only goal a lot of the protesters have, but it appears to be the driving force. PS4RS has sent message trucks around State College on home football weekends this year with alternating messages that range from “Honor Joe now!” to Paterno quotes, including “Believe deep down in your heart you are destined to do great things.”

“We’d like to see them apologize to the Paternos for jumping to conclusion,” Schmidt of PS4RS said. “We would absolutely like to see them honor Joe Paterno for the humanitarian and the educator that he was.”

His family has mounted its own efforts to remove the posthumous cloud over his name. The Paternos hired a legal team to investigate the Freeh Report, and in February that team, headed by former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, found “each one of Louis Freeh’s findings of Joe Paterno to be wrong.” The family has filed a lawsuit against the NCAA seeking to throw out the sanctions against Penn State.

The Paterno family has worked with some of the outspoken alumni. One of Joe’s sons, Scott, wrote a letter of support for the March 4 Truth, stating that “we applaud this effort and hope the board will see it as further proof that the just course is also the correct course.” A lawyer and former congressional candidate, Scott tried to help his father deal with the reporters who flooded the area around the Paternos’ ranch house on McKee Street.

Joe’s widow, Sue, still resides there, just a mile from Beaver Stadium, and remains a prominent member of the community. Sue joined Morgan in a trip to Nittanyville, the tent village where students camp out before football games, prior to the Homecoming game with Michigan.

And then there is Jay Paterno, a family spokesman since the scandal broke. Jay was the quarterbacks coach for Penn State for the last 12 years of his father’s career. He said he said he appreciated some of the protesters’ efforts.

“As it relates to them raising awareness for the governance of this university, I think that’s very important,” Jay said. “Now I don’t agree with everything they say, and I don’t agree with all — nobody agrees with a hundred percent of everything people say. So I agree with some things they do and disagree with other things they do.”

The student divide

“Joe Paterno is no longer the head football coach, effective immediately.” Those words, spoken by then-board of trustees vice chairman John Surma, ignited hostility across State College on the night of Nov. 9, 2011. An hour after the coach was fired, thousands of students took to the streets.

The riot garnered national media attention, mostly negative, but there has not been a large, organized student showing of displeasure since that night. Penn State students were saddened when Paterno died and furious when the NCAA issued its sanctions. But they have not voiced outrage in the fashion of the protest groups led by Harris and the others.

At the March 4 Truth, just a five-minute car ride from Penn State’s campus, there were fewer than five students in the crowd. One student did show up later, but she was not a protester. She was the president of the University Park Undergraduate Association, Katelyn Mullen, who is a student representative on the board of trustees. She used the rally as a chance to tell how students felt.

“When there are protests going on right outside the board meeting where they are trying to make reformations to progress our university, I saw it as a step backward, almost,” Mullen said.

“There’s a general consensus among the student body that yes, we understand that the finding of the truth of what took place is extremely important, but at the same time, we have to focus on what we can control.

“What we can control is academics and putting Penn State in a positive light, trying to find careers in the future, and build a reputation for Penn State that existed previously, and show we still are that same university and that we are making progress.”

The discussion got argumentative at times. Mullen said later that she received many emails and mentions on her Twitter page after the incident and subsequent YouTube video of the discussion. Most of the feedback was negative. Mullen said alumni told her she didn’t understand because she was still a student.

Morgan was one of the people talking with Mullen that afternoon. She said later, “It revealed to me what some of the student population believes, and it helps me bridge that gap.” Morgan said she understands students have their own priorities, but wishes they would take the time to know more about what “her side” is doing. Concurring, Schmidt said, “Our position has always been it’s not the students’ fight to fight. If I had a son or daughter who was at Penn State right now, I would much rather have them focus on their academics and having a good collegiate experience.”

As far as day-to-day life on Penn State’s campus, Mullen, a senior, said that she doesn’t really know what normal is anymore, but that she is pleased with what students and the university have done in the last two years. She noted the Blue Out game, in which the student section dresses in blue for a football game and raise money for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape.

Penn State’s campus has inched back to whatever “normal” is. Enrollment is up, and in July the university was ranked in the top 50 universities in the world by the Center for World University Rankings. Penn State also rose in U.S. News’ “Best College” rankings in September, moving up nine spots to No. 37 and placing eighth among public universities.

Rodney Erickson, who delayed his retirement as provost to take over as president after Spanier’s firing, made the decisions to remove the Paterno statue and accept the sanctions. It is unclear exactly what would have happened if Erickson had refused the sanctions, but it could have resulted in Penn State’s not having football in 2012. Erickson has led the university in implementing recommendations in the Freeh Report. After the NCAA’s special compliance officer, former Sen. George Mitchell, praised Penn State for its progress, the NCAA restored some of the football scholarships. That still didn’t appease Erickson’s critics.

“Our opinion of Erickson is that he folded like a cheap tent in front of the NCAA,” Schmidt said.

Erickson has already announced he will retire at the end of the academic calendar, and the board is looking for a new president.
No one can speak to the precise thoughts of the university’s 600,000 living alumni. But the Alumni Association conducted a survey in December 2012, with 1,172 responding. The survey showed 46 percent of alumni polled said they thought board of trustees took wrong actions in wake of the scandal. But 81 percent said their overall feelings toward Penn State were “totally positive.”

“A lot of people have expressed their concern and their love for Penn State,” said Roger Williams, the director of the alumni association. “It’s not all anger and frustration. There are a lot of people who take pride in where Penn State is going as an institution academically and its response to this issue. Alumni opinion is across the board, although, undeniably, there is still some anger and frustration out there, sure.”

When will it end?

Harris, 63, is one of the few protest leaders not using the Internet as a tool, but the NFL Hall of Famer’s presence carries more clout than 140 characters ever could. If Harris is speaking at an event in State College, he will be surrounded by supporters.

Harris said, “Even though it’s not a loud outcry, it’s not a loud roar of people, I’m just amazed of how many people come up and say ‘Thank you.’ Or ‘What they did to Joe, we knew it was wrong and how could our BoT make decisions and take actions in the way that they did?’ ”

The former Pittsburgh Steeler travels often and is approached frequently by people who want to talk about the university he graduated from in 1972. Harris said: “You know … they’re tuned in to this, even though there’s not this big swell that people are seeing.”

Harris brings up an interesting aspect: It’s hard to assess how many people agree with the fight that Harris and company are fighting. It’s easy to spot the people with strong opinions, but, as Harris noted, there are others who support the cause more quietly. There are others who think the board made some mistakes but also think it is time to move on. And there are bound to be alumni who feel Paterno deserved to have been fired and it was right to accept the NCAA sanctions. No one person or group can speak for everyone.

Paterno’s legacy is a whole different story. The perception depends on whom you ask, but there is clearly a smudge on the Paterno name. And that’s really what Harris wants to change.

On the two-year anniversary of Paterno’s firing, Harris led a forum titled “Upon Further Review.” Morgan, Blehar and Ziegler were speakers. In a full room of 250 at the State College Days Inn, it was a much more civilized scene than the March 4 Truth.

Near the end of the three-hour affair, a man in a green-and-white-striped shirt and khakis stood up and asked Harris: “What is your end goal in all of this? What do you want to accomplish?”

Harris pondered for a second, then took the microphone and said: “The narrative had been one way for a couple years, and the narrative has been anti-Penn State, anti-Joe. We have to change that narrative. … The end goal is that, to me, I would really like people to see the true legacy of Joe Paterno. And that’s very, very important.”

Harris received a solid round of applause.

Harris, Morgan, Ziegler, Blehar and others do not seem to care what kind of light is shown on their respective causes, because they wholeheartedly believe in what they’re doing. It is their passion.

“I realize this makes me seem like a nutjob,” Ziegler said, “but I don’t care because I believe it to be the truth.”

Blehar added: “I had no idea I would spend the amount of time I spend on this, which is basically, I get home from work, I have an office at home – and I spend time in the office, sometimes until 2 or 3 in the morning. Then I’m back at work again, and any free time I have, vacation time, I’m using most of it doing this. And it’s because I want to.”

Many storylines will play out in the courts and through investigations before this is all said and done. Curley, Schultz and Spanier await trial on failure to report Sandusky to the authorities.

Attorney General Kathleen Kane is conducting her own investigation of her predecessor’s handling of the Sandusky case. The university is still searching for a new president, while Spanier still attends an occasional on-campus sporting event. And the Paternos are hoping to win their lawsuit against the NCAA.

The saga is not going away, and neither are Harris and the legion behind him.

“When I first started, I told myself ‘Franco, give it three years.’ We knew we wanted to set a goal, and that for me, was three years,” Harris said. “But lately, I found myself saying that there can be no time limit for the truth.”