Reminders of Paterno still abound on PSU game days

Associated Press Modified: October 4, 2012 at 5:47 pm •  Published: October 4, 2012
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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.

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