For decades and decades, Joe Paterno belonged to Penn State. Since November 2001, so did the Joe Paterno statue.
Paterno's fame extended far beyond Happy Valley, as college football fans and even non-fans marveled at his win-loss record, his "Grand Experiment," his longevity and his backstory. But the man made the most profound impact on the campus and in the area where he coached football for 61 years. To students and residents of the region, he was their coach, their father, their grandfather, their hero.
Never was this clearer than in the past 10 days, as Penn State weighed whether to remove the Paterno statue outside Beaver Stadium in the wake of the Freeh report, which found Paterno culpable in an extensive cover-up surrounding the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal. Paterno supporters visited the statue, left flower bouquets and notes, and snapped countless pictures, often mimicking the statue's pose -- one finger raised.
Several of the statue visitors I spoke to on my recent visit to State College not only voiced their support for the statue to remain but also said the decision on its future is, unquestionably, a Penn State decision. They acknowledged the mistakes Paterno made in the cover-up and the overwhelming sentiment outside the Penn State community to remove the statue immediately. But external pressure didn't matter. Joe Paterno was Penn State, they said. Penn State, and no other judge or jury, should decide the statue's fate.
Penn State rendered its verdict Sunday morning, as university president Rodney Erickson announced Paterno's statue would be removed from the platform on the west side of Beaver Stadium where it has stood since November 2001. They brought out the jackhammers, placed a towel over the statue's head and used a blue tarp to cover the surreal scene. Less than 90 minutes after Erickson released his statement, the statue had been removed. Time of death: 8:20 a.m. ET.
I now believe that, contrary to its original intention, Coach Paterno's statue has become a source of division and an obstacle to healing in our University and beyond. For that reason, I have decided that it is in the best interest of our university and public safety to remove the statue and store it in a secure location. I believe that, were it to remain, the statue will be a recurring wound to the multitude of individuals across the nation and beyond who have been the victims of child abuse.
The key phrase: "across the nation and beyond."
The world will be watching how Penn State addresses its challenges in the days ahead.
In the end, this was more than a Penn State decision. It was bigger than that. And while Erickson had to consider the campus community, he couldn't make the decision in a vacuum. The scope of the scandal had gone far beyond State College.
I thought the statue had to go as soon as the Freeh report came out. I also respected the feelings of many Penn Staters to have it be a Penn State decision. It was a more understandable position than the blind loyalty some still had for the former coach.
David Jones, a terrific columnist for The (Harrisburg) Patriot-News, recently wrote:
A lot of people are yelling a lot of declarations about the statue who have no emotional investment in the school; they just want to be noticed. I think the opinions of all interested Penn State alums and students should be the driving force in what happens to the statue, not national windbags trying to get ratings and Twitter followers.
He's right, to a large extent. Joe Paterno and the Joe Paterno statue belonged to Penn State. But Penn State could no longer make these decisions with only itself in mind. You could argue that's exactly what Paterno and three other top school officials did for years and years while Sandusky continued to abuse children on school property.
Penn State's image has been damaged, and keeping the Paterno statue would only reinforce the perception that the school can't acknowledge the gravity of the scandal. Some argue the statue also would represent the many good things Paterno did during his Penn State career. That's a very tough sell when the statue -- next to the inscription "Educator, Coach, Humanitarian" -- appears on every pregame show and before and after commercial breaks on nationally televised broadcasts of Penn State games.
According to Louis Freeh, Paterno and the other Penn State officials kept quiet about Sandusky in large part to prevent a PR backlash against a powerhouse football program. Erickson's decision Sunday also had Penn State's image in mind, but for much more sensible reasons. Although the statue's removal will cause some short-term backlash, keeping it would have been a long-term disaster.
Those who feel the statue's removal ignores Paterno's positive accomplishments at Penn State need to walk over to the school's library. It will continue to bear Paterno's name, Erickson confirmed Sunday, and it should. I hope many Penn State fans and others make the Paterno Library a stop on their game-day visit to State College.
The library remains a tribute to Joe and Sue Paterno's commitment to Penn State's student body and academic success, and it highlights the positive impacts Coach Paterno had on the University. Thus I feel strongly that the library's name should remain unchanged.
Although the statue debate gained a ton of attention -- more than 13,700 votes were cast in our poll about it -- there are much, much bigger issues at Penn State. The NCAA on Monday will announce significant penalties against the school.
The world continues to cast the spotlight on Penn State. It's good for the school that the statue won't be in it.