(Note: This story originally ran on June 23, after former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted of multiple counts of sexual abuse. The Freeh Report just came out today, July 12, revealing that key members of the Penn State community, including late coach Joe Paterno, hid "critical facts" about the abuse from law enforcement officials. Like we said below, it's nearly impossible now to justify the once great image of Penn State and its football program with the ugly reality of the awful secrets we now know it hid.)
By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts
No story in college sports history consumed a program or the national psyche quite like the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State University. The football team's former defensive coordinator was convincted late Friday night of 45 counts of child sexual abuse.
Eight months ago nobody saw the wildfire coming. Today it's torched everything in its path, and most especially the victims who have lived with the pain in silence and shame for so many years.
As recently as November 2011, just eight months ago, Penn State was largely seen as the ideal public institution and, for the purposes of football fans, the perfect football program.
Forever feisty Joe Paterno led the Nittany Lions on the field on October 29, 2011. Penn State edged out Illinois, 10-7, that day. Ageless Paterno was not only the winningest coach in college history (409 victories) eight months ago, he was sitting on an 8-1 record entering November. His lone loss had come at the hands of eventual national champion Alabama back in September.
JoePA and Penn State not only had a good team eight months ago, they embodied everything that was good and just about college football. Paterno and Penn State did things the right way, the old-fashioned way. And they did it in the state of Pennsylvania, football's breadbasket, a place where the game courses through the blood, the bedrock and the rivers. And more than the Eagles or Steelers or any of the places where they pay players to come from afar, nothing represents football in Pennsylvania more than the Penn State Nittany Lions, smack dab in the rural hills of the middle of the state.
The people of Pennsylvania celebrated the state, its youth and its sporting heritage by celebrating the Penn State football program, more than 100,000 strong every Saturday in autumn.
And Penn State won. Year after year, with only few exceptions, Penn State won football games and the won it in the perfect little football snow globe of State College, PA by doing things "the right way."
And here, just eight months ago, entering November, the school with the perfect program and the lovable 85-year-old coach had a legit shot at a Big 10 title. Hell, Paterno's team had a legit shot claiming a second run at the Crimson Tide for the national title.
It was a giddy time in the now-oddly named Happy Valley. If you ever spent much time in Happy Valley – and we have, almost every year for the past 25 years – the football life there was almost too good to be true. The football program defined the school, the town and the region. And folks there were proud to admit it.
You can't spend more than few minutes in State College without seeing and hearing those words echo across the valley, and especially on game day.
Penn State was football. Football was good. Penn State was good.
It seemed the wins would forever come. Penn State would forever represent the best of America and our football culture. JoePA himself would live forever. It was an image of small-town, all-American virtue, all of it built around Joe Paterno and his small-town football program.
Well, as we know now, that overly wholesome football image WAS
too good to be true.
Fast forward to June 2012 – just eight months later.
Paterno is dead.
Longtime Penn State assistant Sandusky is guilty of the most hideous crimes imaginable.
The football program will go on, but is essentially in limbo.
The school’s reputation is in tatters.
Families and victims must now try to rebuild and go on.
Meanwhile, many in the public assume that JoePA himself, the architect of the image that defined Penn State and that defined football in the state of Pennsylvania, looked the other way while the most hideous crimes unfolded under his watch.
The perfect coach with the perfect program may have hid the ugliest secret imaginable. As a result, Happy Valley is no longer the quintessential American football experience, the perfect place to celebrate the Grand Old Game.
The school and the program may one day recover. They should recover. There’s no reason for an entire public institution, which has given so much opportunity to so many people, to suffer for the crimes of one or even a few.
In reality, the nation needs more places like Happy Valley – only in this case places that actually live up to the reputation and the ideals.
At the very best, it will be quite some time when we once again look at Penn State as the quintessential, all-American small-town football experience that we all saw and admired – just eight short months ago.