STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – From bumper stickers to signs posted by a few businesses to the occasional T-shirt, reminders of Joe Paterno sprinkle Happy Valley.
Most cues are subtle enough to make an outsider look twice. Like the decals with the outline of the bespectacled Paterno’s distinctive face, or the shirt with the image of the longtime Penn State coach’s trademark look of rolled-up khakis and sneakers.
A year after his death, Paterno and a reputation tarnished in the aftermath of the child sex abuse scandal involving retired assistant coach Jerry Sandusky remain sensitive topics for groups of alumni, former players, staffers and community residents.
The Hall of Fame coach died of lung cancer Jan. 22, 2012, at age 85. Today – exactly a year after his passing – community residents have organized a vigil at a downtown mural that includes a depiction of Paterno.
A family spokesman has said the Paternos would not take part, and remain in privacy.
Their supporters, though, spoke up at a recent meeting of the university’s Board of Trustees.
Most critics are angered by how school leaders handled Paterno’s ouster as coach and the explosive findings of the internal investigation led by former FBI director Louis Freeh that put part of the blame on Paterno.
Others say the school hasn’t done enough to honor a 46-year career in which Paterno was known for focusing on academics and philanthropy as well as football.
“The university should lead the way and not sit in silence,” said Ed Stine, 62, of Gaithersburg, Md., a member of the alumni watchdog group “Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship.” He was one at least one of at least four dozen audience members who applauded or praised speakers who paid tribute to Paterno at the meeting.
The man who built Penn State’s program into one of college football’s marquee brands was fired in November 2011, days after Sandusky’s arrest on molestation and other charges. The trustees had said Paterno was ousted in part because he had a moral obligation to pass on to police outside the university a 2002 allegation that was relayed to him by a graduate assistant.
Sandusky was convicted in June on dozens of criminal counts, allegations that authorities said occurred on and off campus. In July, former FBI director Louis Freeh accused Paterno and three former school administrators of concealing allegations against Sandusky to protect the school’s image.
The NCAA took unprecedented action two weeks later in levying strict sanctions, including a four-year bowl ban, strict scholarship cuts and a $60 million fine on the university. College sports’ governing body also vacated 111 wins under Paterno, erasing what had been his major college record of 409 career victories.
Paterno’s family has vehemently denied Freeh’s conclusions and has maintained the coach would not take part in a cover-up. They have said they expect to release its response to Freeh’s report in the near future.
The trustees have maintained over the past year that they intend to honor Paterno at some point. When asked last week, a couple of trustees cited ongoing legal issues related to the scandal.
“There’s going to be a time and a place to do that, and I don’t think that’s right now yet,” trustees chairman Keith Masser said last week.
University leaders continue to navigate tricky issues as they try rebuild Penn State’s image. In the eyes of some national columnists, anonymous message-board posters and other critics outside Pennsylvania or the Penn State community, Paterno’s name has been forever soiled.
A survey of alumni conducted for the school by an external public relations firm found that more than eight in 10 alumni remained positive toward Penn State, though that’s down from nine in 10 in 2009. The survey also found that “recent events” still had a negative impact overall on the feelings of alumni, though the impact was less pronounced in December than in the last survey taken in May.
About 75 percent of respondents also said the school should publicly recognize Paterno for his decades of service to the school, down from 87 percent in May. The survey of 1,172 alumni was taken online and over the telephone, with a margin of error that was 2.86 percent.
“We still have an overwhelming majority of people who say he should be honored,” said trustee Anthony Lubrano, who has long voiced support for Paterno and his family. He joined the board last summer with the backing of alumni critical of trustees who fired Paterno.
“It’s important for us to address if we’re going to heal and move forward,” Lubrano said.
At the least, the football program that appeared to be in peril after the sanctions has regained its footing under Paterno’s successor, Bill O’Brien. The former New England Patriots offensive coordinator conducted a masterful job leading Penn State to an 8-4 season and keeping most of the team together following the penalties.
“It was pretty impressive,” said Terry Pegula, a proud Penn State donor and the owner of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres. “To be down there, in the middle of that, wasn’t a good situation. Even the students were feeling bad. So Bill turned into the shining light in the whole thing. He had a lot of pressure on him and he did a heck of a job.”
Since the season’s end in late November, questions have been raised again about the sanctions and Freeh’s report. Gov. Tom Corbett – a trustee by virtue of his elected office – has sued the NCAA in federal court to have the sanctions overturned.
Lubrano and longtime trustee Alvin Clemens, who was on the board in November 2011, drew applause when paying tribute to Paterno last week.
The tributes at the meeting were appropriate, said trustee Paul Suhey, captain of the 1979 football team and another November 2011 trustee. He hoped there would be “a time when (the board) can honor Paterno more” after addressing lingering problems from the scandal.
• AP freelance writers Christina Gallagher and Mike Haim contributed to this report.