Paterno legacy still controversial topic at Penn State

(Wilkes-Barre) Times-Leader (TNS)
  • Penn State honored famed coach Joe Paterno on Saturday on the 50th anniversary of his first game.
  • It's a move that's fueled criticism from those who believed it was insensitive to sex abuse victims.
  • Fans erupted in cheers and kept cheering when a video honoring Paterno was shown.

​STATE COLLEGE — Jimmy Cefalo only needed a second or so to consider the question.

The Pittston legend was asked if anything that had happened in the past five years had changed his opinion of his old coach, Joe Paterno.

“No. It hasn’t,” said Cefalo, the former star for Pittston Area High School, Penn State and the Miami Dolphins. “Joe will always be someone who took me out of a very small town and he gave me a wonderful opportunity. I don’t know how many people would say, ‘He was my mentor and someone who gave me a great deal of my life,’ and then change (their) opinion about him. It doesn’t happen very often and it shouldn’t happen to any of us.”

Here lies the root of Penn State’s highly complicated relationship with the late Paterno. Those who played for him, those who knew him on a personal level, remain staunchly loyal to him in the years following the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

Others — namely some current students and those outside of Centre County — question Paterno’s legacy after the conviction of Sandusky, his former defensive coordinator, on dozens of counts of sexual abuse of children.

The issue was crystallized this weekend on campus for the 50th anniversary of Paterno’s first game as head coach of the Nittany Lions.

On Friday, it was lettermen holding a reunion with Paterno’s family. On Saturday, it was three videos that played on the Beaver Stadium scoreboard during breaks that looked back at that first game from Sept. 17, 1966.

All three received extended ovations from the crowd, though there were pockets of fans that did not stand or cheer.

“That’s a start,” said former Penn State star and Hall of Famer Franco Harris, who held court Saturday at the former site of a Paterno statue, which was removed in 2012. “To commemorate Joe, it’s a good first step. … I know they received a lot of heat for it, but so what? That’s part of it.”

And there has been plenty of heat.

A section of visiting fans from Temple in the upper deck of the stadium faced away from the field during the videos, displaying a sign that read, “He turned his back, we turn ours.”

In last week’s game against Pitt, groups of students at Heinz Field wore T-shirts with the slogan “Joe Knew.”

The question of how much Paterno knew and when remains a heavy debate even among Penn State fans, some of whom questioned the appropriateness of honoring Paterno at all.

One Penn State student, sophomore Andrew Limauro, stood outside of the stadium before the game with a sign that read, “YOU FORGOT ALREADY,” which was given to him by a former priest who was protesting Friday’s reunion.

“I’m against the university’s decision in (recognizing Paterno),” Limauro said. “They’re doing this to appease the donors, and this is a business decision more than anything else. … This is poorly thought out.

“This is not an anti-Joe Paterno tirade. Anyone who’s read anything (about the situation) can agree there’s so much gray area. For you to support one side or the other completely is just wrong. I think they need to wait for more information to come out.”

When Penn State first announced it would be recognizing Paterno two weeks ago, the school’s independent student newspaper, The Daily Collegian, wrote that it was a mistake.

In an editorial titled “Remaining rutted in the past does nothing for the future,” opinions editor Lauren Davis began by writing, “Penn State needs a reality check. This is not 2011. We need to move on.”

Her piece underscored the divide between the generations when it comes to Paterno.

“This is our Penn State,” Davis wrote. “It is a Penn State without Joe Paterno. It is a Penn State that is still trying to rebuild, make amends and propel forward.

“Those of us here now are beyond ready to move on.”

The players who have since left don’t agree.

A crowd of 400-plus people were in town on Friday night for the Paterno reunion. Brothers Harry and Lance Hamilton — who played at John S. Fine High School in Nanticoke and Meyers High School in Wilkes-Barre, respectively — spoke out in support of their old coach.

“The football aspect of Joe Paterno, I leave to media to write about,” Harry Hamilton said. “Football ties us together, but football is not what brings me here. It is the other aspects of Joe Paterno that brings me here. You can underline that. You can put that in capital letters.”

Harry said he vividly remembered Paterno visiting his house in Wapwallopen and promising his father, Stan, that education would come first.

“No other coach had done that,” Harry Hamilton said. “No other coach seemed to have that on their mind. It was more football. Clearly Joe Paterno was much more than just football.”

“He shaped us during very impressionable years of our lives,” Lance Hamilton said. “The influence that he had, being the second father figure to many of us — I would say most of us — and now to come back and pay tribute, it’s the smallest way possible (to honor him). Because there’s so much more that we really owe him as a mentor, a leader and a coach.”

Andrew Limauro, a sophomore from Pittsburgh stands outside Beaver Stadium protesting the school's decision to honor former head coach Joe Paterno, before Penn State takes on Temple on Saturday.