Erasing History at Penn State

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Joe Paterno is dead. His remains are buried in Spring Creek Presbyterian Cemetery under a horizontal gravestone, about a three-mile walk from the place where he lived and worked as a demigod for six decades and change.

Still, even if Paterno had not succumbed to lung cancer earlier this year, come Saturday, he would not hobble alongside his players as they enter Beaver Stadium before some 100,000-plus fans to start the 2012 season. If he were alive, Paterno would still be fired and shamed and Jerry Sandusky would still be a leatherfaced, towering, 68-year-old monster of a man awaiting his sentence inside the Centre County Correctional facility. History—even the dark history of a football program that played its first home game on the Old Main lawn during the presidency of Grover Cleveland—remains.

Yet, for the past several months, much of the Penn State community has longed for a reset button. Some, particularly school officials and the university’s board of trustees, crave it more than others.

In the wake of the accusations, the trial, the Freeh report, and the NCAA’s sanctions, Penn State leaders have altered many aspects of the school’s football tradition. Some critics call it an attempt to unmake the past. The slightly absurd blacklisting of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” from the game day playlist recalls one Sunday night in 1967, when a CBS producer knocked on a dressing room door inside Studio 50 and asked Jim Morrison not to sing the line “Girl, we couldn’t get much higher” on the The Ed Sullivan Show.

It’s not all bad news in Happy Valley, but it’s certainly different. Among the positive changes for 2012: a new head coach in Bill O’Brien and a new blue ribbon for child abuse on the front of the jerseys.

As for the head-scratchers? For the first time, individual player names will be stitched on the back of what was, for 126 years, an intentionally minimalist uniform. The student-run pregame campsite, Paternoville, is now simply calling itself “Nittanyville.” Tents will still line the pavement outside Gate A for days leading up to rivalry showdowns, but students will no longer sleep a few hundred yards away from the hallowed bronze Paterno statue—now tucked away in storage where no one can see it.

It’s safe to say that a sizable percentage of Penn State’s 557,311 living alumni feel betrayed by Paterno, yet also betrayed by the erosion of constancy that once permeated State College. When you meet an almnus, you quickly realize that he or she likely treats Nittany nostalgia almost as a form of currency. With every change, however subtle, the institution continues to rob that corner of one’s memory bank. With every modification, that nostalgia starts to look and feel more like a dream.

There is anger.

Joe Paterno’s son, Jay Paterno, will no longer coach the quarterbacks. The football team will no longer roll up to Beaver Stadium in full uniform 90 minutes before kickoff to dole out high-fives to hundreds of well-wishers. Fans are still invited to greet the team, though the ceremonial entrance will undoubtedly lose its pomp with a mandate that players now dress for the field inside the stadium locker room. Around 9:15 a.m. Saturday, the squad will disembark from those iconic, rattling blue buses looking less like soldiers preparing for battle and more like Andy Dufresne on his way into Shawshank prison.

Over the past nine months, the football program has publicly lost its reputation as one of the purest and most honorable in America. But the home game—the thing that the school so proudly and accurately once marketed as “The Greatest Show in College Football,” the thing that Sports Illustrated once said every college student needed to experience in person before graduating—is also beginning to die its slow death.

As reported Monday by the Altoona Mirror, “Sweet Caroline” was nixed for the 2012 season because some university officials felt concern over the perception of a stadium-wide sing-along to the lyrics, “Touching me, touching you.” Both Penn State spokesman David La Torre and associate athletic director for business relations and communications Greg Myford denied the correlation to ESPN and other media outlets.

Does anyone believe them?

The “Sweet Caroline” sing-along is just one of many moments that create the euphoric atmosphere of Penn State football. Some of the pop songs on usual rotation: The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army,” Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight,” and Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.” The latter, with its lyrics, “Sleep with one eye open/gripping your pillow tight,” could surely conjure images of Sandusky’s pedophilic sleepovers. No word on whether Metallica will join Neil Diamond in exile.

In what has become the cornerstone quote in Paterno, Joe Posnanski’s new biography of the late coach, Paterno tells his son, Jay, “I have spent my whole life trying to make that name mean something. And now it’s gone.”

Some elements of Paterno’s legacy remain at Penn State. After a game, you can still walk west down Curtin Road to Berkey Creamery and order a scoop of Peachy Paterno ice cream. (As of November of last year, the Creamery stopped offering “Sandusky Blitz.”)

You can continue down that same road to get to the library, where you’ll likely find the June/July issue of Esquire on the magazine racks. You can thumb your way to “In the Ruins of a Blue and White Empire.” It’s a story that outlines how it all began to crumble, a story that the writer, Luke Dittrich, researched in that very building, the building less than one mile from 830 McKee Street, where on Nov. 9, 2011, Paterno was informed, by phone, that he was “relieved of his duties.”

As Dittrich notes, the east side of that building has a particular room, the Special Collections Library, devoted to preservation. It’s the one that requires you to check your backpack and relinquish all forms of ink and potential methods of defamation before getting your hands on its contents—stuff like letters that Ernest Hemingway penned in far off worlds like Nairobi and Pamplona and mailed to his family back home. It’s the side of the building in which students spend hours researching the really big papers in the nights before Christmas break. The side devoted to really important things. The side of the building that, for now, still bears Paterno’s name.

As it should. Paterno was famously among the lowest-paid coaches in college football and lived an exceptionally modest life (save for a silver BMW). He donated $4 million of his own money to fund the library’s construction, just a fraction of the total amount he donated to the school during his 62-year tenure.

But Paterno’s name, too, could very well join Neil Diamond in exile. For, at Penn State, the whitewash has replaced the whiteout, and the “Greatest Show” is nearing its end.