I have been here for a football game, but it is nice to visit Penn State when football is idle, when the pace is measured, and the view of Mount Nittany from most any direction is sobering and uplifting. The view resonates.
When you spend time on a campus, it is best to enjoy the benefits of a local tour guide. On a stop here recently, our hosts were Mac and Becky McWhorter. He’s the offensive line coach at Penn State with a home in Bogart. Someday Mac will let go and return to his Georgia roots. Now, life is a delectable tonic for the McWhorters. New scenery, new experience and new friends with an insatiable urge to enjoy competition in the storied Big Ten.
The allure to Penn State for years was the accomplished football program under Joe Paterno who, as many successful and iconic coaches did, built a kingdom. That, unfortunately, is a circumstance that can get out of hand. It can lead to entitlement, and unlike fine wine, coaches don’t necessarily become better with age. Still many believe you should dance with the one who “brung you.”
State College is like many college towns, especially the land-grant institutions. The campus was established first, and the town grew up around the college. The university is the biggest industry in most college towns, Penn State a classic example. When Beaver Stadium is filled to capacity (106,572), it becomes the fourth most populous place in the state after Philadelphia (1.526 million), Pittsburgh (305,704), and Allentown (118,032). Penn State’s fans are as rabid as they come. Located in the center of the state, Penn State has a fine academic reputation with an enrollment of just less than 45,000.
I came here because of the convenience of a drive from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia. It wasn’t the first visit, but there was a feeling of emptiness having to do with a casual friendship with Paterno. I was curious about the scene but also wanted to spend time with my old friend McWhorter.
As we entered State College, the thoughts that crashed about in my mind collided and left far more questions than answers. First of all, why do bad things happen to good people? Joe Paterno, for example. How could a place that had set the classic example of athletic performance on the field being unalterably wed to the academic process wind up with such scandalous calamity? What was the motivation of the NCAA in grandstanding with a staggering punch to Penn State’s midsection?
And the victims of child abuse should not be ignored in any and all discussions when it comes to the Penn State episode. That central theme keeps playing out in your mind — how could things go so wrong?
The scars of the debacle are not evident as you move about the campus. There are old buildings, flowering shrubs and kempt lawns. People move causally in some circles, sprightly in others. Backpacks, coeds on bicycles, two by two, a guy playing catch with his dog with a Frisbee. Professors strolling to their next appointment.
It could have been any campus anywhere. Texas. Michigan. Rutgers. Yale. Princeton. Kentucky. USC. Slippery Rock. I have never been on a college campus where there was not that electricity in the air, that free spirit and inevitable swoon. Those uplifting scenes, when you feel good in the ambience of stimulation, underscores the fact that no matter the misdeeds, college campuses are resilient and forgiving.
After a meeting on campus, I headed back to my motel to check out and continue my journey. I decided to drive by the Paterno house on McKee Street, the modest home you have likely seen on TV. When Joe Paterno was coaching in the Coaches All-America game in Atlanta, we had dinner a couple of times along with his wife, Sue. I decided to stop by and say hello to Sue, knowing that with the time that had elapsed, I had likely become a stranger.
She came to the door, I introduced myself, reminded her of the Atlanta times, and simply said, “I wish you well,” and that I had fond memories of her late husband. “Thanks,” she said and politely closed the door. I was not offended.
Joe probably stayed too long, but he deserved to depart with the dignity of a life well spent — not being fired on the telephone and having his statue uprooted and hauled away like a diseased tree on Mount Nittany.
Loran Smith is an administrative specialist for the University of Georgia sports communication department. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.