STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Several times across the nine months he's been the coach at Penn State, Bill O'Brien has reiterated that his program will continually move forward, while always remembering the past.
The fans have bought in.
Though the bronzed statue outside Beaver Stadium is gone, and the record of 409 career victories erased by the NCAA, reminders of late head coach Joe Paterno still surround Penn State football game days around Beaver Stadium.
From the "409" tailgate banners in the parking lots, to the mementos left at the site where the statue once stood, JoePa is still with Nittany Lion Nation on fall Saturdays. And memories are sure to sprout up come Saturday when Penn State hosts No. 24 Northwestern for the homecoming weekend game.
"I don't think it's fair to pretend Joe Paterno never existed," Chris Bartnik, 43, said before a game last month. Bartnik, a Penn State graduate from Chantilly, Va., placed a life-sized cardboard cutout of Paterno at the old statue location.
The embattled Board of Trustees; Paterno's successor, O'Brien; and most rank-and-file fans share at least one prevailing sentiment: an eagerness to move on from the scandal that blemished the university's reputation and led to the landmark sanctions from the NCAA.
Sandusky is scheduled to be sentenced next week after being convicted in June on 45 criminal counts involving 10 boys. Prosecutors have said the abuse occurred on and off the Penn State campus.
Trustees last November fired Paterno, who died two months later at age 85 of lung cancer. In July, an internal investigation led by former FBI director Louis Freeh determined that Paterno and three other school officials concealed abuse allegations — conclusions firmly denied by Paterno's family and the officials. Paterno's family has said they are conducting their own investigation.
The NCAA then slammed Penn State later in July with the severe penalties including a four-year bowl ban and steep scholarship cuts. The NCAA also vacated every Penn State win from 1998-2011, and Paterno was stripped of 111 career victories — meaning he no longer holds the record for most coaching wins in major college football.
Nearly a year after the arrest on Nov. 5, 2011, of Sandusky, which set the scandalous events into motion, the issue of how the university dealt with Paterno remains a sensitive topic to many local residents, alumni and Penn State staffers.
"We still believe," read the inscription on a card attached to a bouquet of blue-and-white flowers left at the old statue site before the Navy game Sept. 15, a day after Penn State trustees held a meeting on campus.
Nearby was another sign written on bright yellow cardstock that read "Fire the Cowards."
Make no mistake: fans are firmly behind O'Brien, who has guided Penn State to three straight wins after two close losses to open the season. T-shirts with the phrases "Bill-ieve" or "O'Brien's Lions" have become hot sellers at downtown stores.
But Paterno-themed items remain just as common on game days.
One week this season, a life-sized cardboard cutout of Paterno was left at the former statue site. Another day, it was a mini-Paterno bobblehead doll.
Some fans have worn T-shirts with "409," a number also found on some tailgate flags and banners. Others shirts include an image of Paterno's jet-black sneakers and rolled-up khakis, the coach's trademark sideline look.
Still others shirts take pointed jabs at university leadership and the NCAA.
"They're perfectly willing to accept that somehow it was a truthful statement that this university sacrificed its academic mission to help its football program. Nothing could be further from the truth," fan Keith Jervis, a 1984 graduate, said in reference to a NCAA criticism of Penn State. Jervis wore a "Team Paterno" T-shirt in honor of a Special Olympics charity run.
"That's not Joe Paterno's life, that's not how Joe Paterno lived his life or led his program," Jervis said. "Nothing upsets me more than that, because that's what this university is all about."
Sue Wilson, a Penn State alumnus from Ohio, hosts a large tailgate each week across the street from the stadium with a delectable spread of dips and desserts. This year, the tailgate also draws looks for various signs including "409" banners and a placard that rested on a bumper one week that read "Karma has no deadline! Freeh. 'Trust'ees. Emmert," the last name in reference to NCAA president Mark Emmert.
Wilson is a member of the alumni watchdog group Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, which has been critical of the board's actions.
"Until the truth comes out, and until you deal honorably with the Paterno family, and what you've done to them, don't call me," Wilson, a longtime donor, said. "No more scholarships. No more donations. There are thousands of us saying the same thing."
Days later, at a town hall forum on campus with university leadership, student Kevin Berkon criticized trustees for removing the Paterno statue too hastily. Paterno's name, though, was not removed from a university library on campus to which Paterno's family donated millions to help build.
"The Paterno library is the only thing left. His statue, his name, there's nothing here," Berkon said. "All I can say is you guys have pretty much torn this university apart. I cannot be more disappointed in the leadership here."
Later, trustee Marianne Alexander fielded another question about if the board would "take responsibility" for its actions concerning Paterno.
Trustees last month said that while they're closely studying the recommendations from Freeh to improve school procedures and policies, they have never accepted the conclusions in the report, as had been assumed by many critics of the board.
"I look forward to the day when we can acknowledge Joe Paterno's contributions to the university," she said. "I think at this point, we need to let the court cases play out. I'd like to see the community come together at some point. We're not there yet."
Some alumni critics have said the board should have taken let the legal process play out in the first place, in the frantic days following Sandusky's arrest. They view the Freeh report and the NCAA decision as another rush to judgment on Paterno's actions.
Rich Mauti, a wide receiver for Paterno in the 1970s, said he's not surprised by the show of support for the late coach on game days. He attends every home game to watch his son, Nittany Lions linebacker Michael Mauti.
"It's a hideous situation. The guy that did it is in jail and probably will never get out," Rich Mauti said in a phone interview this week. But he remains steadfast in his criticism of how the trustees and the NCAA treated Paterno.
"The rest of the things ... we'll find out the truth and what actually happened when the truth comes out."
For as passionate as the support for the Paterno family in the region and among many in Penn State's massive alumni base — about 560,000 strong — has been, the lurid scandal has elicited just as strong criticism against Penn State. This is especially true outside of Pennsylvania, and after Freeh said there was a cover-up.
These are tricky public relations issues facing university leadership, who are also trying to repair the school's image nationally with more criminal and civil proceedings still on the horizon.
Trustees chairwoman Karen Peetz has said that she understands the frustrations of the school's passionate alumni.
"I think, unfortunately, there will always be people who are skeptical about what we say or how we say it," Peetz said after September's trustees meeting. "We're just telling it like it is."
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