Back in 2006, Joe Paterno, the aging god of Penn State—the coach who supervised more wins for his football team, the Nittany Lions, than any other in history—took an ungodly turn.
At the age of 79, he was in a sideline collision during a game with Wisconsin, breaking his left leg. Ordinarily, this sort of thing wouldn’t provoke a whole lot of panic, but at Penn State, where he was already fending off pressure from president Graham Spanier to ease him into retirement, the reaction was swift.
In an apparent attempt to protect his image, screens were erected around the staff entrance Paterno used, making it impossible to get a shot of the legendary coach entering the building in a wheelchair. Then he was brought to the coaches box, and kept off the sidelines. “They didn’t want us to see him,” says Cate Barron, the executive editor of the Patriot News, a local paper that has tangled with Paterno for decades. “It was like a Roosevelt situation.”
Thankfully, Barron’s photographer, Joe Hermitt, knew the ins and outs of Beaver Stadium. He ran to the second floor of the press box, where he was able to get a good angle of the coach from above. “He shot down and got the photo,” Barron says, laughing.
But these days, there’s not much besides that to chuckle about with regard to Paterno—or Penn State’s obsessive handling of its image. A week and a half ago, the school was rocked by news that one of the team’s longtime assistant coaches, Jerry Sandusky, was being charged with molesting eight boys over the last 15 years, and the university was being accused by many of looking the other way while this was going on.
The university’s inaction has drawn comparisons to the Catholic Church—another institution where monsters were protected as they preyed on the vulnerable. Like the papacy, there appeared to be a code of omerta and patriarchy. And like the papacy, Penn State was terrified of what might happen should a scandal taint its sainted image.
Now, as a reckoning occurs, what’s increasingly clear is that the school was not just fighting to keep its reputation intact by maintaining The Big Secret. Even on the pettiest, smallest things, they went to surprising—and expensive—lengths to keep things looking picture-perfect.
At the Patriot News, a simple request for Paterno’s salary—which relies on public funds—turned into a five-year legal battle in the state court system. The university argued that the paper was violating staff members’ privacy; the paper claimed that the sum of a publicly funded paycheck should be transparent. “We would win, they would appeal,” Barron says. “Eventually, it went to the [Pennsylvania State] Supreme Court and we won. The court ruled that the public’s right to know how its money is spent outweighs an individual’s right to privacy.”
Readers did not exactly side with the Patriot; they sent in heaps of hate mail for what they felt was yellow journalism. “They didn’t like it because of the aura around JoePa,” says Barron, using the former coach’s nickname.
Meanwhile, over at The Collegian, the student newspaper at Penn State, obtaining interviews with Graham Spanier, the University president, was virtually impossible. He eluded reporters’ questions by requesting they be asked via email, rarely—if ever—taking their calls, according to staffers there. “At the time we didn’t have anything to compare it to, so we kind of got used to it,” says Liz Murphy, the paper’s editor in chief from 2009 to 2010. “But it was frustrating.”
At The Philadelphia Inquirer the experience was similar: inquiries from reporters were met with disdain from the school and its legendary coach, who obsessed about his Nittany Lions team “as if it were a wartime army.” That’s how staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick put it in a recent article, saying: “The reputation for integrity that Paterno and Penn State developed has been a shield of sorts. It deflected criticism and potential problems.”
Three years ago, a series of corruption scandals led state legislators to drastically rewrite laws about the open flow of information. Beginning then, state-funded groups were required to provide the public with access to information like email records and phone logs. Yet Penn State’s lawyers successfully lobbied for an exemption. According to The New York Times, they argued that the new open-records laws would make donors less likely to give money.
Why did the state acquiesce? As lawyers who have tangled with the school describe it to The Daily Beast, the Nittany Lions had become a hugely valuable source of income in an otherwise decimated area of Pennsylvania. Who wanted to run afoul of the school?
In recent years, some have begun to wonder if Penn State’s shroud of secrecy is really still coming from Paterno, or instead, underlings trying to protect him. Many close to the university—and at least three journalists who have covered the Lions—say Paterno, 84, doesn’t always seem as alert as he once had been.
Often during games last season he was up in the coaches' box instead of being down on the sidelines. At press conferences he would seem a little lost. “It was like he was not totally there,” says Murphy. “His health was a constant question in the newsroom. During my tenure, we talked every day about whether his retirement was coming.”
That more or less jibes with how folks at the Patriot saw things. Says the paper’s photo director, Mark Hynes, “He started this season as sharp ever, but last year he did at times seem hazy.” Adds Barron: “He has his good days and his bad. He doesn’t do as well after he’s been banged around.”
A spokeswoman for Penn State did not respond to requests for comment.
Still, Paterno’s decades-long success at protecting his team’s image is part of why the student body has been so rocked by his fall from grace. On Wednesday night, after Paterno was fired, students rioted in the streets, toppling a news van, and symbolizing yet again that the greatest anger—at least for some Penn Staters—was not toward the people who allegedly helped enable Sandusky, now an accused criminal, but toward those seeking to expose them for it.
Says Barron of the Patriot: “When you go to Penn State, you are in their family, and it’s this very intense thing, partly because it’s so isolated. There is a mystique, and now it’s crashing down and people are going through the seven stages of grief. The students, I think, are in the denial phase.”
Additional reporting by Kevin Cirilli.