The road back to Happy Valley

by Meghan Rodriguez

On Saturday, November 12, the Penn State Nittany Lions faced the Nebraska Cornhuskers as millions across the nation watched on ESPN. This wasn’t just another football game. It was Senior Day and the first in-conference game against Nebraska since it joined the Big 10 Conference this season.

Most noticeably, it was also the first game since 1946 that head coach Joe Paterno wasn’t present on the sidelines or in the coach’s box. Three days prior to the game, Paterno was fired by the Penn State Board of Trustees. Paterno failed to report his former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky to police after allegations had been made that he had molested several young boys over the course of 15 years.

What happened not only rocked State College, Penn., but the nation. Paterno was known in the college football world for running a clean football program built on hard work. Penn State has one of the highest graduation rates among its players. And unlike several other big name programs in recent years, Penn State manages to operate within the rules set by the NCAA.

As news of Paterno’s firing quickly made its way across campus, student protests turned into violent riots. Images of destroyed property joined by chants of “Hell no we want Joe,” were broadcast by major news stations across the country.

I sat and watched with disbelief thinking to myself: “Do these kids even know what they’re protesting? Do they realize why Paterno was fired?” Although only a fraction of Penn State’s 45,000 students were involved in these riots, the images were still disturbing and did not send a good message to those watching.

ESPN began its broadcast of Saturday’s game 15 minutes early to show the seniors being introduced one by one on the field and a moment of silence for victims of sexual abuse. However, the most powerful moment of the broadcast was when the teams met midfield and knelt in prayer, led by a Nebraska assistant coach. The moment was unexpected and gave me chills.

During the week, I heard numerous television reporters repeat the line, “Penn State is bigger than Joe Paterno. It is bigger than football,” but in that moment, it was football that played a major part in the healing process.

The image Penn State projected on Saturday was a stark contrast from what it displayed Wednesday night. After a week of being the focus of media attention, those tied to the Penn State family and those directly affected by the scandal used Saturday as a form of therapy.

Students distributed blue ribbons outside the stadium and fans were asked to wear blue in honor of sexual abuse victims. As the cameras closely focused in on individual players, fans, cheerleaders and other attendees, it was clear that many of them were fighting back tears. It had been an emotionally draining week for all those with ties to the university.

Penn State prides itself on the motto, “We are Penn State.” In September, I had the opportunity to attend a Penn State football game and was impressed with the class and school pride that the students exhibited. Despite the team’s loss, Beaver Stadium still erupted in cheers and chants, especially when Paterno was shown on the JumboTron.

To many, Joe Paterno WAS Penn State. To those he coached, he was a teacher and a father figure. To the students, he was a legend and the face of not only the football program, but also the entire university.

In order for Penn State to take the steps toward rebuilding its image and football program, it had to start with a clean slate and remove everyone who had knowledge of the scandal. This had to begin at the top with the president and eventually make its way to members of the coaching staff.

It’s going to take time for Penn State to get used to the fact that Joe Paterno is no longer its coach. He was a great football coach, but his morality and ethics will forever be questioned because of what he didn’t do when he had the chance.

Penn State’s image may be tarnished at the moment, but it has taken the first step toward recovery and healing. Other universities have faced crises and major trauma and bounced back, and Penn State will do the same.

It is a great university that is defined by its rich tradition, student body, alumni and community and in time will return back to the nickname it has been given, Happy Valley.

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5 Comments

Filed under Career, The Industry

5 responses to “The road back to Happy Valley

  1. Morgan Beavers

    Everyone knows that this year has been difficult for the Tuscaloosa community. The April 27 tornado left the people of Tuscaloosa devastated and in utter shock, but it also brought the community together. People joined with others to help clean up and to comfort one another. I remember the chills I experienced the first Saturday that the Alabama football team took the field. The football team is a symbol of unity and of hope. The players inspire their fans to get back up. I think the Penn State football team does the same for its fans. The players continue fighting for a victory despite the current scandal, and this is an example of admirable character. Sexual abuse is terrible and inexcusable. It is sad that Penn State lost a legend like Joe Paterno, but his actions had to be reprimanded. I think it must have been an amazing sight to see the football players join in prayer in the center of the football field. That is truly a light in a time of darkness.

  2. Katie Brazeal

    Meghan, thank you so much for writing this blog entry. I feel that this incident is extremely important to both the sport of football and to our industry, public relations (crisis management). At first I was confused when I heard that Joe Paterno had been fired. I knew why he had been, and it sounded bad. But I also have friends that attend/attended Penn State University, and they were blowing up my Twitter feed with tweets that left me wondering if the board of trustees at Penn State had made a mistake. However, it was when I read the statement, “Joe Paterno is not the victim in this situation,” that everything began to make since.

    In the same way that you argue football can be used as a Band-Aid for hurting communities (Tuscaloosa, Penn State, etc.), I would argue that football can also become a god. Although there was the small portion of students at Penn State who did not handle the firing of Paterno with much dignity (i.e. rioting), the students as a whole were able to get past the “goodness” of Penn State football and Paterno, and they turned that image around at the football game against Nebraska.

    It just makes me wonder what would happen at our university if something so unfortunate were to take place. I do not doubt the immediate rioting, but would we be able to turn it around so quickly and stand together against immorality. It is easy to stand as one when the enemy is a destructive tornado. But what if the enemy was our football god, Nick Saban?

  3. Kera Cottingham

    I find it extremely odd that only days after this information was released, it was announced that the assistant basketball coach at Syracuse University is also facing charges of child molestation. The allegations against Bernie Fine say that he molested former ball boys at Syracuse University. Not only would this story be disturbing on any normal day, but the fact that two cases of coaches molesting children has come about in the matter of weeks is outrageous. My sister and her husband both graduated from Syracuse University. They both are huge fans of the basketball program and have been completely shaken by this information. News like this causes fans to doubt their teams. Unfortunately for those moral college coaches out there, this allegations make the general public question the overall morality of college sports. How can things like this possibly occur? No one should undergo what these victims have undergone. Also, no one should be in support of someone who would cause this type of affliction.

  4. Shayna Starita

    As a public relations major this situation has made me think more about crisis management. While writing news releases and public service announcements this scandal has been in the back of my mind. Within the first few days of media coverage it seemed that Penn State didn’t even have a public relations department. As someone that has studied PR the first step should have been to rid Penn State of all parties involved. As much as Joe Paterno was seen as the face of a great football program, this scandal should have gotten him fired prior to the public knowing what happened. One of the best PR acts to this day was when Johnson and Johnson pulled all of its Tylenol products off the shelves after learning of eight deaths in one localized area. Since Johnson and Johnson took these measures the public viewed it as a company they could trust. Going back to my thoughts on Penn State, had they done the same, rid the entire program of anyone involved its program wouldn’t be suffering so much media slaughter now. I also believe that the rioting from the students and fans would have been prevented. Crisis management is one type of PR that should never go unstudied.

  5. Nick Horton

    What has come to light in recent weeks at Penn State is truly unbelievable. This is a classic example of people in power covering up the truth, and holding themselves above the law. As more and more news surfaced about what had happened and how it was handled I thought to myself that the people involved need to be severely punished. The grand jury report is so sickening that I stopped reading it. I took a trip with my family to State College for the Alabama earlier this season, and I am glad I did because I will never return. Joe Pa’s legacy will forever be tarnished, as it should be. What took place and was covered up for years is a true lack of morality at all levels. I am firmly in support of the actions taking by the Board of Trustees to fire Joe Pa, and after the season they need to clean house and start fresh. My thoughts and prayers go out the victims of this tragedy, and hope that anyone who knew anything is punished to the fullest extent of the law.

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