Saturday, November 12, 2011

Penn State Football: The Lion's Pride Asserts Itself

We weren't certain what to expect when we entered Beaver Stadium yesterday for the Penn State-Nebraska game.  It seemed an eternity since that miserably snowy Illinois game two weeks earlier, when Penn State eked out a win with the help of an innovative student section that distracted the Illinois kicker at the end of the game, causing the ball to fall harmlessly off the upright, and achieving Coach Joe Paterno's 409th win, the most wins in Division I history.

In just a week's time, Penn State's entire world had collapsed as we knew it.  It was a distressing week for anyone who associates themselves with Penn State:  students, faculty, staff, alumni, sports fans.  We were shocked, disgusted, ashamed, angry, afraid, confused, determined to know the truth. 

Many Penn Staters including me found ourselves trying to defend what Penn State is all about as this new world of social media caused us to have instant reactions to Facebook discussions, online postings, etc.  My family and many of my friends were clearly very concerned about me.  They saw a lot of anger in my posts on Facebook.  They were right.

Life at Penn State University Park in particular, with a media circus that was unprecedented, was distracting and distressing at best.  In any spare moment we were glued to whatever sources we trust to find the latest horrific news. 

I am first and foremost an educator at Penn State.  So in the midst of all this turmoil, I prepared for classes, taught classes, listened to four team projects, and even gave an exam.   I too was distracted, and any writing for a blog or media source was going to have to wait. 

No.  That's not quite right.  I have 3-4 drafts of articles I didn't publish because I found it hard to find the right words.  I was speechless.

But my students all know how much I love Penn State football and how much I admire Joe Paterno. 
So I found myself playing "den mother" to my students, as the week progressed.

These students were hurting.  Joe Paterno was their unconditional hero.  They love him more and revere him more than anyone can possibly imagine.

And their hero had fallen, drastically, dramatically, in a way that nobody could have ever possibly predicted. 

I gave them an exam the day Joe Paterno resigned.  In fact it was ten minutes after his resignation was announced.  When I walked into the classroom, my students said, "Professor Todd, before you pass out the exam, we want to know what you think."

I somehow found words and used quotes to explain what I was thinking.  And fought back tears. 

On Wednesday, the Board of Trustees fired Joe Paterno.  I was livid, as my friends and family on Facebook will attest to.  But after sleeping on it, I realized they had no choice but to fire both him and Dr. Graham Spanier, our university president.

Here is what I wrote to the students on Thursday morning, in an email entitled "Please Be Careful..."

"After a week of horrific stories and reactions to those stories I am as distressed as you about how the events unfolded this week and especially last night.  The horrible stories of abuse coming out of the grand jury investigation required that the Board of Trustees react swiftly and make decisions that will help the world regain trust in Penn State University.  We may or may not agree with them, but Penn State as an institution needed to be bold and forthright in taking a stand.

"I'm sure you feel cheated.  Angry.  So do I.  This was not the way Coach Joe Paterno's tenure as the winning-est football coach in Division I history should have ended.  It is not the way President Graham Spanier's tenure should have ended.  He was one of the most respected university presidents in the nation who did great things for Penn State.  It may take years to figure out whether or not this was the right decision."

I then went on to give students advice on how to avoid riots, to find a way to channel their incredible energy into something positive, and to hold their heads high as a Penn State student.  We would get through this by supporting one another.

I quoted Dr. Jim Thomas, Dean of the Smeal College of Business where I work, when he said in an emailed message to faculty,  "I will not let the horrible alleged actions of one and the inaction of a few others dent my love for this University with its 45,000 employees, 95,000 students, and 550,000 alumni. Penn State is much more than any one or a few individuals … it lives in and through all of us."

And so when I walked into Beaver Stadium about an hour before the game, and went to the mezzanine level, I stopped and looked around as the team was practicing.  Tears started to well up.  I realized how exhausting this week was.  I realized how much of a grieving process I was going through, that all of us were going through.

We honestly weren't sure what to expect, how this game would start.  All the former football players had gathered for this game, coming from far and near to support the team.  It was Senior Day for the football players, and the focus of Senior Day would normally have been on them.

They went through the usual routine of introducing the senior players, but it was unprecedented for them to be running through a tunnel formed of former football players.  It was a message of support for the seniors, but it was so much more. 

This was a day for the Penn State community to make a strong statement of solidarity to the world after a week of utter chaos and confusion.  The lion's pride gathered in mourning.  To support one another, to say:

We are...Still Penn State!

In the stands, we greeted each other with hugs, talked about how many times we had cried through the week, how hurt and distressed we all were.

But everyone was there.  No person we normally see in the stands around us stayed home.  The tailgates were still held.  It almost seemed normal for a big game against Nebraska.

But of course it wasn't.

The students showed up on time.  For a 12 noon game.  That was unprecedented in and of itself!  All wearing blue, to combat child abuse.  10,000 of those students spent Friday night at a candlelight vigil for the victims of child abuse.  I couldn't be prouder.

And then, the team walked out on the field.  Led by the captains, not their interim coach.  Not running as they usually do, but walking, in a slow deliberate pace, arms linked in arms, for all the world to see that this was a different day, a different game, this was not normal, but we as a team are together.

They sent us a message of determination and strength and solidarity in the face of immense adversity.  They were committed to seeing this season through.  Wow.

But the most incredible sight was what happened next:  the team members from both Penn State and Nebraska approaching each other on the field for what we thought at first was going to be an unusual show of sportsmanship and greeting.

And then kneeling down together to say a prayer, led by Ron Brown, the running backs coach for Nebraska.

The silence of the crowd - 107,903 strong - was stunning.  The prayer was not short.  It was a long prayer that the crowd could not hear (later we could hear it on Youtube).  The crowd became a bit impatient at the end, but the prayer went on.

And at that moment, one of the most unusually unexpected moments I have ever witnessed at a Penn State football game, I couldn't have been more thankful that this game was actually being held.  I couldn't have been more thankful for the display of unity by college football players. 

For the message that the Nebraska football team and their fans (I met several of them both before and after the game) understood our pain and stood with us in our pain.
As for the game itself, it was a 17-14 win by Nebraska.  A hard-fought battle, the stats mostly even, and Penn State had a shot at winning at the end of the game.

As the game was being played the passion of Penn State fans was about as intense as I had ever seen it, the crowd as loud as I have ever heard.  It almost felt normal again.  And for all of us the catharsis of rooting loudly for this group of seniors gave us some relief in a week of grieving.

We even actually had some fun.  And did our usual complaining about how we have no offense.

I am very proud of how the Penn State football team hung in there.  If it was tough for me this week I can only imagine how much tougher it was for them.  A thousand-fold at least.  

The student faces as we left the stadium were the most crestfallen I have ever seen.  A win would have gone a long way to helping them have something to be happy about. 

But I think that even they know that there are more important things in life than winning or losing a football game. 

What mattered most on this fall football Saturday was that this Penn State community - its students, its alumni, its fans, the players - come together to start what Coach Bradley called the healing process.

Congratulations to Nebraska for winning this battle and for demonstrating so much class!

Oh and by the way, welcome to the Big Ten.


  1. "Show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy."

    F. Scott Fitzgerald

  2. Great post! I graduated from Penn State with a Business Logistics degree in 1997. I stumbled upon your blog somehow a few weeks ago and I have enjoyed your weekly posts. This week, obviously, is so different than any other. This was an excellent post. You truly captured the emotion of the week and the day. I cried watching the broadcast on television. That is the first time I ever cried at the beginning of a game (I have cried at the end before!). I am STILL a proud Penn Stater!

  3. Thank you so much, April. I couldn't be prouder of the students Friday night and Saturday who did so much to express their concern for the victims and hopefully turn around the media reporting of Penn State students. Be proud always of your Smeal degree!

  4. Gina and I too shed some tears at the beginning....that was one of the greatest moments before a football game I have ever witnessed. Was extremely proud of how our players played. And, even prouder that Nebraska is part of the big ten....what a class act.

  5. Oh, forgot to say...EXCELLENT post Carolyn!

  6. Thanks Doug. Hope you've changed your mind about next week! In any case let's get together Friday night if possible.

  7. Carolyn, "wonderfully written". You are a great inspiration to Penn State University.

    Gary Saeger, Allentown PA

  8. I graduated in 1998 and took one of your classes back then. I believe I even sit one section to the left of you and your husband, and thought I saw you once. I've been reading your blog for a year or two now, but haven't commented until now. Thank you for writing this. I felt and experienced the same emotions as you and everyone else last week. Unlike Coach Pelini, I'm glad they played the game. But Nebraska was the perfect opponent for us to play, with their great fans that came. I even went to the supermarket yesterday wearing my PSU sweatshirt and hat and felt people staring at me, but I will continue to be proud of my school and wear my gear (it's all I have in my closet!). WE ARE...PENN STATE

  9. What a week..I was glued to the television and social media sites all week last week. Needless to say, it didn't exactly help my GPA. I was beyond irritated with the media firestorm against JoePa, as they undoubtedly led to his firing--which is a decision the board had to make. But how could the board not anticipate a student riot? They rioted the night before because of the possibility of his firing--what do you think they'll do if he is fired?

    It was a tough, emotional week that seemed to drag on forever. I didn't know what to expect on Saturday--but what I witnessed and took part in made me proud to be a member of the Penn State community.

    It's tough to even be disappointed with Saturday's loss--we have the better team in my opinion but i think we'd be naive to think that the week's events didn't have an impact on the game.

    I'm hoping for some clarity in the coming months on this whole scandal, but in the meantime let's get a victory next week to gain some momentum heading into our battle in Madison. WE ARE

  10. Hi Gary. Thanks as always. It's been a lonely week in a lot of ways.

    Doug, for heaven's sake come say hi if you sit that close to us. We haven't changed our seats in over 30 years so will be there next year. Good to hear from you!

    Nathan, you're the best student football fan around. Hang in there and hang your head high. The students today all over campus seemed so depressed. Maybe we all need a break.

  11. I will definitely make it a point to stop by next year! I hope your trip to Columbus is a safe one. Looking forward to hearing how Penn Staters will be treated there.

  12. Tell me, Carolyn, do you teach your students that Johnson & Johnson made a mistake and that they should have killed the Tylenol brand?

  13. Why do you have a picture of Joe Paterno on your website when you're one of the people who threw him under the bus?

  14. Anonymous, Johnson & Johnson reacted swiftly and recalled all bottles, took Tylenol off the market at a cost of over $100 million. It was not J&J's fault that someone put cyanide in their caplets. But that didn't matter. They handled the crisis perfectly. They also had to wait until tamper proof caps were invented before they put the Tylenol product back on the shelves and it took years to rebuild the brand.

    Penn State when the grand jury presentment was released did not manage the crisis well at all. They especially didn't manage the media. Unlike Tylenol, there doesn't appear to have been any crisis management approach whatsoever for the first five days or so after the grand jury presentment was released. I don't agree with the way the Board of Trustees implemented the decision, they didn't need to "fire" him and they certainly didn't need to do it at 10:15 p.m. They could have accepted his resignation effective immediately. Remember he had already resigned that day. But the fact is that with the media crisis at Penn State, Joe Paterno could not coach another game. There was no way that the Penn State football team could have played another game without it being an unprecedented media circus. The headlines all that week were "Child Sexual Abuse Scandal" with a photo of Joe Paterno. Our beloved JoePa became a lightning rod for the media, and the focus was all on Penn State not on Sandusky. If you want to blame anyone for throwing JoePa under the bus, then blame the media, and Penn State's lack of crisis management in those first few days.