The Ohio State upset and the post-Paterno era at Penn State

Editor’s note: the author of this post is Professor Annie Byrnes, a 2006 graduate of Penn State.

This weekend, the Penn State Nittany Lions accomplished a lot of firsts for the football team since the scandalous departure of its former head coach.

On Saturday, Penn State stunned #2 Ohio State with a 24-21 win in a white-out game in Happy Valley. The victory gave the Lions their first win against Ohio State since 2005, their first win against a ranked opponent in three years and their first ranking in the AP Top 25 poll since 2011, shaking up the college football playoff picture in the process.

But even with so much new excitement surrounding the team, alumni and football boosters still seem mired in the past, with many fans fondly tweeting tributes to their former coach in the wake of the win.

Earlier this season, Penn State also honored Paterno with a commemorative video on the big screen at a recent football game for the first time since 2011, when the late coach was fired in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

While many Nittany Lions fans cheered on the memory of their former coach, fans for the opposing team turned their back on the field – an apt metaphor for Penn State’s reputation in the football community and underscoring their current public relations predicament outside of the state of Pennsylvania.

Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant coach at Penn State, brought scandal and disgrace to the university when he was accused and later convicted of raping and molesting multiple boys over a period of decades through his personal charity, The Second Mile, and in some cases abusing boys on the Penn State campus.

In recent months, new documents have also raised questions about how long Paterno knew about Sandusky’s action and whether he hid them to save the face for the school.

That makes the choice to keep bringing Paterno into the modern Penn State football era questionable at best. While alumni still hold dearly the nostalgia of a bygone era, the rest of the country seems to find the tributes to the former coach distasteful, inappropriate and a signal that the Penn State community still can’t fully accept the role the school and its leaders took in covering up Sandusky’s terrible acts.

The New York Times openly questioned the move. Deadspin and ESPN’s Rece Davis called it “tone deaf.”

But that’s not to say that all Penn Staters still feel the tie to Paterno. The editor of Penn State’s student-run newspaper argued for a fresh start, saying many current students have no connection or allegiance to the former coach.

“We need to move on,” said editor Lauren Davis.

Unfortunately for Davis, frankness came at a price as she received severe backlash via email and social media for her words from angry alums.

From a public relations perspective, it seems that Penn State’s most ardent Paterno supporters don’t realize that their dogged defense of the disgraced coach is now hurting the name of the school they hold so dearly.

But what’s most a shame about the situation is that there is much to celebrate in the modern era at Penn State with or without the memory of the man so many once called JoePa.

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