Monday, July 28, 2014

Happy Valley, Revisited

TigerBlog was driving east on Pennsylvania Route 322 near Harrisburg yesterday afternoon when the sky darkened, the lightning crackled and the rain started.

In the lane next to him was a car driven by an older gentleman and, presumably, his wife. Their car was a convertible with the roof down, so the two of them were getting wet, as was the interior of the car. TB can't remember the make and model.

Now how do two people know that a storm is approaching but continue to drive with the top down? And, perhaps most stunningly, they didn't really seem to care that it was raining on them inside their car. They didn't pull over or speed up or anything like that. Eventually, TB presumes they did something about it, but they had to have been soaked by then.

If TB was on 322 heading east near Harrisburg, then it's a good bet he was coming from Penn State, which is about 90 minutes or so from the state capital.

It was bright sunshine at Penn State all weekend, and the thunderstorms didn't come to that part of the state until a few hours after the end of the Keystone State Games lacrosse tournament, which is what brought TB there. For those keeping score, TigerBlog Jr.'s team came home with a gold medal.

It was the second time TBJ played in the event. The first came back in 2011, when he won bronze. And when TB wrote this:
At Penn State, the single most famous person in the history of the school is football coach Joe Paterno. In fact, there is a statue of JoPa outside the stadium, one that stands about seven feet tall, with a little side drive in which people can pull in and get their picture taken. It appeared that there was a steady stream of people doing just that all weekend.

Back in 2011, Joe Paterno was still the most powerful person on that campus, and possibly in the state. He answered to no one at PSU, obviously.

There was something quaint and charming about Penn State in 2011. It's called Happy Valley, after all.

 It's a giant state university, but State College has the feel of a very small, folksy town, one where everyone knows everyone else - and where the entire Penn State universe stopped on football Saturdays.

Back then, it seemed somewhat idyllic. Paterno, for his part, had the public persona of being a beacon of integrity in the unseemly world of big-time college football. He donated money for libraries, for Pete's sake.

Then, a few short months after TB was there in 2011, the entire facade came crashing down with the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal, one that touched the upper echelon of the University administration and did something that losing seasons and old age couldn't do - it brought down Paterno, the man himself and even his statue, which served as a symbol of the place he had in State College society.

Paterno died shortly after he was fired from his job as head football coach, done in ultimately by lung cancer at the age of 85. He remains a wildly polarizing figure, with staunch defenders to this day who refuse to see the obvious, that a sexual predator was operating on his watch, long after Sandusky left the coaching staff, and that Paterno did nothing to stop it, all in the name of keeping his job.

Walking around State College this weekend, TigerBlog again had the feel of being in a really nice, really friendly really special college town.

At the same time, he couldn't help but sense that it will be a long time before the university is completely past what happened, even as all of the major players in the scandal have faced the music. Paterno is dead. Sandusky is in prison for the rest of his life. The administrators who turned a blind eye have been disgraced and face their own legal issues.

Still, there is the unmistakable pall that hangs over Happy Valley, that something awful happened there and that it can't simply be wiped clean without understanding the root cause of it. And that root cause is still there, on the northernmost spot of the campus, a giant, unmistakable reminder of everything that makes the place great - and what can come from that when left unchecked.

Beaver Stadium - the Keystone State Games lacrosse tournament was held on fields that were across the street from the mammoth facility, so TB spent his entire weekend looking up at it - seats 109,000 fans now. That would be four times the size of Princeton Stadium.

At its best, it brings together an entire community in a way that nothing else can. The pageantry, the school spirit, the sheer pride, the history - it's all there. There's something wondrous, beautiful, about it.

And yet underneath that, there is the reality of what can go on away from Game Day. A stadium with 109,000 seats brings in a ton of money, as does a top football program. And where there is that much money, well, you already know the rest.

Penn State's other athletic facilities surround Beaver Stadium, and they too are beautiful to look at. It's what a major Big 10 school does with its athletic facilities.

But make no mistake. Football drives everything there. And look what came of it. Look what was allowed to happen there, and why? Because the football team was "too big to fail," as it were.

Is it naive to wonder what else is out there across the BCS football landscape, under the surface, away from the beauty? Hardly. It's naive not to think that way.

TB wrote it when the scandal first broke and he believes it even more now. Maybe the best thing about Princeton is that nothing - not any part of the University or individual person - can be bigger than the Princeton name itself.

As a result, everyone here is accountable to the Princeton name. Nobody here can think that the rules don't apply to him or her.

At Penn State, Beaver Stadium is the sun that everything else on campus revolves around.

Here, there is no sun, per se. Not like that, anyway.

TigerBlog just looked up from his desk and out the big Jadwin Gym windows, across the track and at the football stadium. This might as well be a different planet from where TB spent his weekend, at least in terms of college football.

The people that TigerBlog met at Penn State this weekend couldn't be nicer. Their town is friendly and welcoming. Their campus is pristine and beautiful.

They deserved better from their hero.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

One of your best blog posts ever.

Having grown up outside of Philly and lived for over 20 years in Central Pa you caught the whole Paterno/Sandusky debacle in a nutshell.