UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Joe Paterno's grave is about halfway between Mount Nittany and Beaver Stadium. In nearby Bellefonte, Jerry Sandusky is inmate No. 12-0529 at the Centre County jail. Penn State is set to begin a season like no other in its storied football history.
Saturday's game (noon ET, ESPN) against Ohio Universityonce would have been viewed as simply a matchup with thatother Ohio school - not Ohio State. But this is no typical year in "Happy Valley," where roars of "We Are ... Penn State!" have echoed through past falls, a distinct, unified and thundering voice known across the college football landscape.
"We know what we're going through is tough ... but we also know the power football has to bring people together," says senior fullback Michael Zordich, whose father played for Penn State in the 1980s. "We know that it can't heal everything, but we know that it can help."
The healing Zordich speaks of will continue this weekend in a stadium packed with roughly 100,000 fans - die-hards who have witnessed the Penn State football program's stunning and swift fall from grace after a child sexual abuse scandal, and alleged coverup, that dominated the nation's headlines for months.
In interviews with dozens of students, merchants, business people, faculty and alumni, USA TODAY encountered common themes: displeasure with stiff NCAA sanctions, fatigue over news media coverage of the scandal, disgust with the crimes committed - and enduring support for Paterno and the football program that he built.
"I hope it's a year in which we can demonstrate to everyone how important it is for all of us to be respectful of one another ... and to reflect the best of the university and the community as we move forward together," university President Rodney Erickson said Monday before an event to build relationships between students and local residents.
In the company of the Nittany Lions mascot, Erickson joined in the fifth annual Lion Walk, visiting homes to chat with students and locals.
"People have really come together," Erickson said as he walked. "Penn State people are very resilient. They're very resolute, and they want to show the world what kind of values we have."
After an extraordinary year, classes started this week in a very ordinary way. State Collegewas busy as usual with students buying supplies. But signs of the times are never far away. One T-shirt in a store window read: "We Are ... Still Proud." The outside of Dante's Inferno Brick Oven & Bar read, "Victims, students, athletes and alumni, we support you!"
Crimes and punishment
Sandusky, Paterno's longtime assistant, was convicted of sexually assaulting 10 boys over a 15-year period from 1994 to 2009. He is awaiting sentencing and faces a potential maximum sentence of 442 years in prison.
Victims testified that assaults occurred in the basement of Sandusky's home, hotels and the coaches shower at Penn State. Sandusky's victims have filed lawsuits against the school that have yet to be resolved. And the Associated Press reported Thursday that Sandusky has been recommended for designation as a sexually violent predator, which would require lifetime registration with authorities, according to a person who read an assessment board's report in the case. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because of the report's confidential nature.
The scandal rocked the image Paterno built with players who won games, graduated and didn't showboat. Paterno died of cancer in January at 85 after being fired by phone in November within days of Sandusky's arrest. Former university president Graham Spanier was fired, too. The NCAA hammered Penn State with unprecedented penalties for what it deemed a "culture" that put football above "human decency." Among other penalties, the NCAA vacated all of the school's wins starting in 1998 - 111 of them.
Penn State moves on with new coach Bill O'Brien, players who didn't take the NCAA up on a free pass to transfer to other schools and a student body that includes freshmen who won't see the Nittany Lions in a bowl game for the next four seasons. The NCAA has barred postseason participation.
This season, Penn State players will wear blue ribbons on their helmets to show support for children victimized by sexual abuse. Ohio University says its squad also will wear ribbons.
Indeed, the school and much of the Penn State fan base have used the unspeakable abuses seared onto Sandusky's criminal record as a teachable moment to rally against such crimes:
• In May, Penn State invested $1.1 million in a new Center for the Protection of Children in Hershey, Pa.
• As part of the NCAA penalty, the school must pay $60 million in fines over a five-year period. The money will go into an endowment to prevent child abuse and help its victims.
• Known for stadium "White Outs," Penn State plans the second "Blue Out" for its Sept. 22 game against Temple. Fans will wear blue. Donations will benefit the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape.
• In October, Penn State will host a conference on ways to prevent sexual abuse of children and care for victims.
Teresa Huizar, executive director of the National Children's Alliance in Washington, says it's a start. Her focus is on where the university goes from here. She says that beyond fines, the attention created by the scandal provides an opportunity for Penn State to "reset football in its appropriate place, which is secondary to the academic mission of the school and even further down from protecting children."
Though the NCAA crippled Penn State football, it did not shut it down.
Two freshmen in the student union this week were thrilled to hold a pair of the prized 21,000 student season tickets, which sold out in June.
"I'm excited to see how strong they come out and how unified everybody is and the excitement of the stadium," said Jason Huberman, 18, of Atlantic City.
Emilee Rehm, 18, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., is the latest in her family to attend the university. Her mother and her mother's parents are alums. "My grandfather was in the stadium for Paterno's first game as coach. This will be Bill O'Brien's first game, so I'm just carrying on the legacy," she said.
Michael Brennan, 21, a senior from Marlboro, N.J., wore his opinion about the NCAA penalties on a T-shirt bought off campus: "We Are ... Pissed Off."
Thirty former chairs of Penn State's Faculty Senate issued a statement Tuesday acknowledging "horrible, horrible crimes" against boys but also criticizing "layers of conjecture" in the Freeh Report probe of the Sandusky matter - the school's internal investigation conducted by former FBI director Louis Freeh. The damning findings were released in July.
But at a Faculty Senate meeting, member Victor Brunsden said the university should fix problems within and not focus on the NCAA.
"My concern is that there are some structural problems with the board of trustees ... that helped lead to the Sandusky scandal," said Brunsden, a math professor at Penn State's Altoona campus.
A new-look team
Under the sanctions, any Penn State player could transfer to another school. Nine players left, including last season's rushing leader, Silas Redd (now at Southern California), and kicker-punter Anthony Fera (now at Texas).
The holdovers start over under O'Brien. The first-time head coach, 42, was most recently offensive coordinator of the NFL's New England Patriots.
Ohio University isn't an opening-day patsy. The Bobcats, favorites to win the Mid-American Conference, return 15 starters from a team that went 10-4 last season and beat Utah State in a bowl. Penn State is favored by 6½ points.
The Nittany Lions remain an unknown, returning six starters from a team that went 9-4 last season - though those wins are now voided.
"I'm not going to sit here and say we're going to go out and (go) 12-0," senior quarterback Matt McGloin says. "But what I can say is that we're going to work harder than ever, we're going to play harder than ever and we're going to be in every game."
O'Brien says it's a special team already. That's why the Nittany Lions will have their names on the backs of their uniforms. Paterno never allowed that. He said the Penn State name was more important than the individual.
Paterno is buried at the Spring Creek Presbyterian Cemetery. A stone marker in the ground reads "Paterno." Placed around the grave are blue and white plastic flowers, Penn State caps, mini-footballs and placards with such sentiments as, "Here lies the heart of the Lions." Another note says, "Let history find him guilty of flawed judgment, not evil coverup."
On Saturday, fans pouring into Beaver Stadium will walk past five young trees in a patch of grass where a statue of Paterno once stood.
"There are a lot of great, great people here at Penn State," says John Urschel, junior guard on the football team. "But we've been blessed to be in a position to represent our university ... and do the best we can to show the outside world how great of a place Penn State is."