STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) Penn State detailed plans Thursday to mark the 50th anniversary of Joe Paterno’s first win as hundreds of the late coach’s former players made their way back to State College for a private reunion, marking a milestone that has emerged as a sensitive issue for the university and people critical of Paterno’s role in the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
Athletic director Sandy Barbour said Thursday that commemorations during Penn State’s game Saturday against Temple would focus on Paterno’s commitment to student-athletes and academics, plus highlights of the 1966 game and players from that team.
”Coach Paterno wanted academic success not only for his players but also for every student who came through Penn State. Together with his wife, Sue, they helped countless students become leaders and earn a Penn State diploma,” Barbour said in a statement. ”Our plans are consistent with the wishes of the Paterno family as well, with a focus on the players and their accomplishments at Penn State and beyond.”
The statement did not mention the scandal or address the backlash that sparked immediately after the athletic department announced before the season started that it would formally honor the anniversary.
Paterno coached at Penn State for 46 seasons, becoming college football’s winningest coach. But the coach was fired by the school’s board of trustees shortly after Sandusky, who was his defensive coordinator, was arrested in November 2011 for child sexual abuse. Paterno died in January 2012 of lung cancer.
In May, unsealed court documents said an alleged Sandusky victim said he complained to Paterno about Sandusky in 1976 and was rebuffed. The university’s president, Eric Barron, has said the allegation was not substantiated in court or tested by any other process. Paterno was never charged with a crime related to the scandal.
Sandusky was convicted on 45 of 48 charges in June 2012 and is serving a 30- to 60-year sentence.
Warren Hartenstine played on Paterno’s first team in 1966 and was one of a handful of former players to help the Paterno family organize Friday’s reunion. As he prepared to leave his Maryland home for State College on Thursday, he described his emotions in a telephone interview with the AP. He said he understands and accepts that Paterno has become a polarizing figure.
”Coach Paterno, I think in many ways was naive about everything in the world except football and human growth,” Hartenstine said. ”We were the fulfillment of what his life’s goals were. He adopted my family, my college roommates, everyone. You were just very special to him. How to respond to the accusations? There’s a sense of impossibility about it.”
But Hartenstine said he doesn’t consider the reunion a celebration of Paterno. Rather, it’s about recognizing the achievements of players who were a part of the coach’s ”Grand Experiment” that placed an emphasis on academics.
”The emphasis has been not so much on Joe Paterno,” Hartenstine said. ”This is about the men of the Grand Experiment. (Sue Paterno) repeats it over and over again that the accomplishments of lettermen are what this is a celebration of. I shouldn’t even say lettermen. There are walk-ons that were there, some on our team, who put in their four years and worked, very, very hard.”
Moving forward from the scandal has proven a difficult challenge for Penn State, requiring leaders to balance distancing the university from the scandal while juggling the wishes of ardent Penn State supporters who credit Paterno for giving the university an identity to be proud of.
The private reunion, proposed by Paterno’s widow Sue Paterno, is expected to draw nearly 500 former players across five decades to the school’s baseball stadium, which is owned by the university but managed by a private company that runs minor league baseball and other events at the ballpark. The park is adjacent to Beaver Stadium, Penn State’s football field.
Sue Paterno said in a statement that the reunion was to honor the achievements of the players and to raise funds by charging $50 per player for graduating Penn State athletes to attend graduate school. She said while she was pleased the university planned to mark the occasion too, the family told the university it wanted the focus of the event to be on the players.
”The university has confirmed that this is their plan, and we commend them for their approach,” she said.