Penn State Nittany Lions head coach Joe Paterno on the field… (MICHAEL KUBEL, THE MORNING…)
Growing up in Western Pennsylvania, your college football loyalties were to one of two schools.
Pitt. Or Penn State.
The two schools could not be more different.
The University of Pittsburgh is an urban campus, located in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh, its buildings blackened with the soot from the steel mills on the river.
Penn State is located in the rolling hills of Central Pennsylvania and had its own dairy farm, for heaven's sake, and students lived on the ice cream made from the milk of its cows.
When the Pitt football players would get into some kind of mischief in Oakland, the local newspapers were quick to report on it.
Penn State, however, was protected by Mount Nittany, and not much bad news ever found its way out of Happy Valley.
As a matter of fact, Ernie Accorsi, who was a Penn State sports information officer long before he was a National Football League executive with the Colts and the New York Giants, used to joke that football coach Joe Paterno would assign a youngster from the SID's office to guard the mountain roads and warn him when nosy reporters were on their way into town.
The Pitt- Penn State football rivalry lasted more than 100 years and the traditional Thanksgiving weekend games were considered among the most important north of the Mason-Dixon line. You made all sorts of assumptions about people based on their favorite school.
Gritty, urban Pitt. Or rosy-cheeked, wholesome Penn State.
That moral sheen has been lost with the indictment of former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, a Paterno assistant for 33 years, on charges that used the perks of the big time football program — and its locker rooms — to seduce and molest young boys.
Compared to this, the free tattoo scandal that brought down the football coach at Ohio State and the hooker parties that threaten the University of Miami's football program seem like nothing more than college high jinks.
It is possible that Penn State had a pedophile in the highest ranks of its storied football program for decades and turned a blind eye. If Paterno, the most winning coach in college football history, survives this, it will only be due to his legendary stubbornness. The man has not rethought a decision he has made, from black football shoes to no names on jerseys, in half a century.
For our part, we are a Penn State family.
My husband graduated from Penn State and has covered the school as a sportswriter. His brother followed him there. His best friend played for Paterno and considers him a father. Our daughter's first act as a freshman was to send her father a picture of herself in front of JoePa's house in State College. It is a shrine of sorts. The coach and his wife, Sue, have lived in the modest bungalow forever.
The magnetic poles of Pitt and Penn State are so powerful in my hometown that I chose to go to college in Ohio rather than align myself with one camp or another as my friends did. Everyone went to Pitt or Penn State, and high school was not so much fun that I would have liked to do it over on either campus.
But all these years later, I have not been above basking in the glow of Penn State's image. I have been proud of my family's connection to that school. Eyebrows rise approvingly when I say that my daughter graduated from its prestigious business school, and there is envy among our sports fan friends when my husband makes another trip up the mountain roads to cover an event there.
I teased my family about Penn State's righteous reputation, but I was secretly grateful that such a reputation could still be had in this sorry world.
This is a different kind of story from "the mighty shall be brought low" that is so often at the core of public humiliation. Penn State had a kind of lock on rectitude in the dirty world of college sports, and it was comforting to know somebody out there did. "Success with honor" was the program's motto. Mothers were eager for their sons to play for Penn State.
If the Catholic Church cannot contain the sexual evil of its anointed, certainly no college campus can be expected to do so. There is a reason why we tell our children not to make gods of sports stars because of their physical gifts or their success, but to look inside the heart of a competitor to find inspiration.
Sadly, that search begins anew.