Dienhart: How do you pick up the pieces?

The repercussions of a sex-abuse scandal involving former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky will be felt for years at Penn State. The fallout among the school’s brass has been swift and stunning. Joe Paterno was unceremoniously fired yesterday. On the same day, school president Graham Spanier also was dumped. Athletic director Tim Curley has taken a leave of absence after being charged with perjury. Still, their fates pale compared to Sandusky’s victims.

At some point, Penn State must begin to pick up the pieces. And the process begins this Saturday with a visit from No. 19 Nebraska.

Playing a game may seem trivial, given the gravity of the situation in State College. How can anyone possibly focus or think about football with one of the ugliest stories in college sports history unfolding at Penn State? Whether the game even should be played is debatable, but it will go on.

Nonetheless, the No. 12 Nittany Lions have to finish the season and move forward against this sordid backdrop. Yesterday, the school appointed defensive coordinator Tom Bradley to serve as interim head coach the rest of the season and he spoke Thursday morning.

Bradley has been a loyal Penn State assistant, joining the staff as a general assistant in 1979 after playing defensive back for the Nittany Lions from 1975-78. Bradley followed Sandusky as coordinator in 2000 and widely is considered one of the best in the business.

“I have no reservations about taking this job,” Bradley said at a press conference today. “It’s with very mixed emotions and a heavy heart that this occurred and I’m going through this. I grieve for the victims, I grieve for the families. …”

Penn State may be able to move on with games, but it will take years for the school to repair its image—if it ever happens.

“That’s a lengthy answer,” said Bradley, when asked how the school can restore its once-sterling reputation. “Not sure I have all the answers now. We have to find a way to restore confidence.”

Penn State has surprised many by racing to an 8-1 start, sitting atop the Leaders Division with a two-game lead over Ohio State and Wisconsin with three games to play. Back in August, hardly any pundits saw this coming from a team that finished 2010 with a 7-6 record (4-4 in the Big Ten).

There were pressing issues at quarterback. The offensive line had a lot to prove and some defensive ends needed to step up.

But the Nits have used a combination of great defense, serviceable quarterback play and the strong running of back Silas Redd to confound experts, who didn’t envision Penn State having the top record in the Big Ten as the season hit the home stretch in November. But somehow, focus must be found amid the tragedy that’s unfolding at Penn State.

“I think (the team) will be ready to play Saturday,” said Bradley, who didn’t address specifics about the scandal that has enveloped the school. “They had a lengthy team meeting.”

After the Cornhuskers’ visit, the Nittany Lions finish the season with trips to Ohio State and Wisconsin—the teams in hot pursuit of Penn State in the Leaders Division. Bottom line: No school has a more daunting finish to the season than Penn State.

The Nittany Lions have a two-game lead over the Buckeyes and Badgers, meaning they can afford to lose one game and still win the Leaders and advance to the inaugural Big Ten title game. But if they drop two, the Nittany Lions could lose the division crown on a tiebreaker depending on how Ohio State and Wisconsin finish the season.

Bradley says the team had a lengthy meeting and talked it out. And he mentioned a letter arriving from the former lettermen this afternoon that will describe what it means to be a Penn State football player.

“They’ll be OK,” said Bradley.

Once the book is closed on 2011, the search will be on for a head coach to replace Paterno. But that search could be delayed while Penn State looks for an athletic director and a president. The next coach will have to connect with Penn State’s vast alumni base, soothing feelings of betrayal and building fractured trust.

In addition to Bradley, some of the names being mentioned as a possible successor to Paterno include former Florida coach Urban Meyer, Miami (Fla.) coach Al Golden, Boise State coach Chris Petersen, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, Rutgers coach Greg Schiano and Houston coach Kevin Sumlin, among others.

But it’s still early. Whoever gets the job will find a program that is built for success. In fact, Penn State will likely remain a powerful program no matter who follows Paterno.

The school has a tradition that’s on par with national powers like Alabama, Texas, USC, Oklahoma and Florida, among others. And under Paterno, success has been rampant. The program has won two national championships (1982, 1986), had five undefeated, untied teams and 23 finishes in the Top 10 of the national rankings.

The school also has been an NFL factory with more than 350 former players who have signed NFL contracts, including 32 first-round draft choices.

When it comes to support, fans pack 106,572-seat Beaver Stadium for home games, making it one of the loudest and most intimidating venues in the Big Ten.

Players still will to want to be part of that incredible foundation laid over the past 46 seasons by Paterno. And they also may want to be part of a healing process that may never end in State College. Speaking of players, the Penn State job is attractive because of its proximity to fertile recruiting territory smack dab in the middle of the Keystone State. Some of the best high school football is played in Pennsylvania.

And Penn State also is close to populated areas that annually teem with talent, including New Jersey, Ohio and Maryland. Paterno habitually harvested great players from those outlying areas—and the next coach will have that same benefit.

That coach will also have the enormous challenge of leading a public healing, too. Being the head coach of Penn State has long been a big job. But the revelations of the last week made the challenges of the position even bigger.

But before then, Penn State and Bradley must finish this season, a season that forever will be defined for all the wrong things now matter where the Nittany Lions finish in the standings. Bradley and the Nits are ready to move forward with the healing process on Saturday.

“I think the message is clear,” said Bradley. “Let’s show them what Penn State is really all about … Let’s show class, let’s show dignity.”

Tom Dienhart is a senior writer for BTN.com. Find all of his work at www.btn.com/tomdienhart, follow Dienhart on twitter at @BTNTomDienhart, and click here to subscribe to his RSS feed.

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8 Comments

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bob jones on 11/10/2011 @ 2:08pm EST Said:

Tom, this story gets stranger all the time, we have an icon who seems to be above reproach [Joe Paterno] who does basically nothing when presented with a horrendous assault story, that just doesn’t make sense. There is a story about a prosecutor who was given Sandusky gift wrapped several years ago admitting his guilt to a parent while the police and prosecutor listened in back and then refused to prosecute due to lack of evidence and then just totally disappears 6 years ago, which doesn’t jibe and now there are stories being published that Sandusky had been pimping out these poor children to wealthy boosters, this story goes way past Joe Pa. There is obviously more here than meets the eye, hopefully there are some honest investigators who will not just continue the cover up.

    Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer on 11/10/2011 @ 3:16pm EST Said:

    I am speechless the more I hear about this sad, sick and sordid story. It makes you want to cry. The story may go well past JoePa, but he had a chance to intervene at one point and chose not to. And it’s a mistake he NEVER will live down.

James Boyd on 11/10/2011 @ 3:04pm EST Said:

The media is ridiculous

Quick. Don’t think. Who is prime suspect number one in the scandal involving Penn State right now? If you were to read 95% of the stories put out by the national media since Sunday or gone on Twitter or (from stories I’ve heard) spoken with any of the national talking heads trudging through State College right now, they would tell you that the villain in this horrible, horrible incident is Joe Paterno.
Tell me, when was the last time you heard Jerry Sandusky’s name? When was the last time you heard about the charges brought against athletic director Tim Curley and former VP of Business and Finance Gary Schultz? I’m fairly certain that these three men have been the ones charged with crimes in this on-going investigation.
Some of you may know me as the former sports editor at Onward State. I started writing my junior year and became fascinated with journalism. I found it exciting to go fact-finding. To be able to relate a story to the masses was an exhilarating feeling. But over the past five days, my love for the craft has dwindled. I realized a whole lot about the business of journalism after reading the stories of the New York Times, Washington Post and some of the most respected news blogs in the nation. And yes, I said BUSINESS of journalism. Because journalism has now gone past its roots. It is no longer about telling a story. It is making up the story that will sell the most papers, get the most pageviews, accrue the most Twitter followers and make the most money in the end. What will sell a story? Will a story about a no-name like Gary Schultz sell papers? Will a story about Tim Curley get an author noticed? Even a story on Graham Spanier, who has a bit more national prominence, won’t bring in readership. Like I said, when was the last big story on the perpetrator, Jerry Sandusky, written?
You know what will sell, though? The downfall of an American icon. A man who has spent 60 years building the reputation of a football program, a university, a whole town doing the “legal minimum” but not his “moral duty” being pummeled both in writing and by cameras and microphones everywhere he goes. I can guarantee you, if Penn State was coached by some no-name, the stories churned out would be about the victims and the men who perpetrated these crimes.
I’m not here to defend what Joe Paterno did or did not do. That has been talked about in many other posts and in many other comment boards. But I hope to convey some of the things the media has lost sight of over the past week by dissecting different allegations they have brought up. Please follow along below.
1. “JOE PATERNO NEVER FOLLOWED UP ON THESE CHARGES” or “JOE PATERNO SENT THIS UP THE CHAIN OF COMMAND AND WASHED HIS HANDS OF THE SITUATION”
This was the first of many “facts” that was made up by the national media. If you’ve read the Grand Jury testimony, I commend you. Now go read it again. Pick out the part where it says Joe never went back to Tim Curley or Gary Schultz to see what was happening in the process. It never says he did, but it sure as hell doesn’t say he didn’t either.
2. “JOE PATERNO KNEW ABOUT (OR HAD TO HAVE KNOWN ABOUT) THE ’98 ALLEGATIONS AND STILL LET A CHILD RAPIST AROUND HIS TEAM”
Once again, go back to the testimony. Nowhere does it say that Joe knew about any allegations before 2002. In fact, one person I know sat in a class on Tuesday and listened to Patriot-News reporter Sara Garim, who has been the point person for all of the investigative stories dealing with this case, say that Joe testified he did not know about the 1998 allegations, going as far to say: “I think it’s fair to say, as far as you could possibly say, that Joe Paterno didn’t know about [the 1998 investigation].” If some real investigating had been done by the national media, they’d probably know that too.
3. “JOE PATERNO ENABLED A CHILD RAPIST”
Use your words better. I understand your need for emphasis to sell, but using the word enable makes it seem like Joe hand-picked the boys for Sandusky.
4. “JOE PATERNO IS TIM CURLEY’S/GRAHAM SPANIER’S BOSS” or “JOE PATERNO RUNS PENN STATE UNIVERSITY”
Many columnists have brought this point up in regards to Joe pushing Mike McQueary’s information up the chain of command. Since Joe runs everything there, he is to blame. He is the head honcho. Find other columns these men and women have written. Look at their Twitter feeds over the past year. Look at them from the past week! They’ll tell you that he doesn’t even run his own football team anymore and hasn’t for 15 years. For an 84-year old man to not be able to look over 85 players and a coaching staff, but yet control 44,000 students on the University Park campus, plus the administrators, plus the faculty, plus the staff and handle day-to-day operations of a university seems unimaginable to me. But you know, whatever argument works at the time, guys.
When Joe Paterno released his retirement statement Wednesday morning, he said that he would finish out the year coaching. A large majority of the people I follow on Twitter and TV commentators said it wasn’t enough and were adamant about it. He needed to resign now or be fired by the Board of Trustees. A huge, HUGE backlash for a man who just wants to coach four or five more football games. Later on in the afternoon, Ben Jones of Black Shoes Diaries and StateCollege.com tweeted that he was told Jerry Sandusky was spotted working out in a gym with his wife this morning. The reaction? “Wow.” “Geez.” “Welp.”
This story has become so twisted that negative emotion about a man coaching a football game exceeds that of an accused chlid molester walking the streets of the town where he committed his crimes by what it seems to be millions of percent. By focusing on the tear-down of the most notable figure involved in the case, people have become numb to the man who did the most damage and those who have been accused to covering up that damage.
Sensationalizing a story led to Joe Paterno being the first man to lose his job in this fiasco. And while I have no qualms about saying Joe had to step down after this mess blew up, when looking back at the facts, is he really the first man who should have gotten the axe?
Now, since the media has completed Objective One: Bring Down JoePa, I hope they do what I always believed journalists did: find the facts, dig through the sources and tell the people the real stories happening in State College.

Matt on 11/10/2011 @ 3:27pm EST Said:

Tom, have we heard anything about safety concerns for Saturday’s game and how Penn State will alleviate them? Something tells me that if Nebraska wins, that a smattering of extra State Patrolmen isn’t going to do much against a fanbase that has rioted in the past…

David on 11/10/2011 @ 3:59pm EST Said:

Sorry James, but your spin doesn’t hold water.

Sandusky was arrested and will be going to trial, he story is done until the trial begins.

It was obvious from day one that all 5 PA ST peoples involved had to go. Curley and Schultz were immediately dumped, so there is no story there. Right away it was leaking that Spainer would be gone too.

The story was “would the most powerful person at PA ST be fired like the rest or not.” Until that was decided, that was the story.

If you notice, now it is turning to McQuery being the only one involved who still has a job.

One would think he’ll be gone by Friday.

bob jones on 11/10/2011 @ 4:08pm EST Said:

There is a definite security concern from the Nebraska fans and the NU administration, Tom Osborne addressed some of them on local interviews this morning, and he was very concerned. The last time Nebraska went to Penn St in 2002, many fans said it was absolutely the worst they had ever been treated at an away game, ever. After seeing what can only be described as a lack of institutional control existing at Penn St over the last several years and then seeing out of control students rioting and vandalizing the area last night and remembering how Husker fans were treated so horribly on their last trip to Unhappy Valley, security is a huge concern, I haven’t seen anyone there act like a responsible adult for some time and it sure doesn’t seem to be getting any better. Hopefully students and fans will realize that the whole country will be watching Saturday, and a continuation of their unruly behavior will have long standing results that can only do more damage to an already badly tarnished image.Time to grow up and act like adults, someone there needs to, if that is asking too much maybe cancelling the rest of the season would be appropriate.

Mike G on 11/10/2011 @ 5:03pm EST Said:

The right thing to do would be to admit that big time sports has gotten too big at Penn State and to immediately suspend the football program for the rest of this year and for the next two years. Just like at SMU years back, Penn State should take a step back and find the proper place for football in an athletic environment.

Joseph on 11/10/2011 @ 5:41pm EST Said:

The PSU trustees have taken a good first step. Everyone who knew something but did little/nothing should be barred from the PSU campus permanently. Going forward, the University needs to reexamine exactly what it is they stand for. What exactly is their creed? Having a high moral standard and belief in ethical behavior is fine but how about having the courage to act when something is not right? JoePa certainly talked the talk but when push came to a shove he failed to walk the walk (remind anyone of Jim Tressel?). Canceling a football game or even the rest of the season is unfortunate but this whole sordid affair is about something much bigger and more important than a football game.