Penn State University’s president told alumni that the school’s crisis can be blamed on one person: former football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. But many alumni are still grieving over the firing of longtime football coach Joe Paterno.
In a sometimes heated 90-minute exchange Thursday night at a hotel near Philadelphia, university president Rodney Erickson laid the blame for the school’s crisis on Sandusky.
”It grieves me very much when I hear people say ‘the Penn State scandal.’ This is not Penn State. This is ‘the Sandusky scandal,”’ he said. ”We’re not going to let what one individual did destroy the reputation of this university.”
The 650 people attending the second of three alumni sessions, however, didn’t receive his remarks well.
”It’s a shroud of secrecy still,” said Joseph Weiss of the Class of 1988. ”You said it’s not a Penn State scandal, but it is, because perception is reality.”
Erickson will be in New York on Friday for the final alumni town hall event aimed at repairing the school’s image following the child molestation charges filed against Sandusky, a retired defensive coordinator. He may not have an easy time of it if his previous stops in Pittsburgh and suburban Philadelphia are any indication.
Most of the questions from alumni Thursday concerned Paterno and the deep pain his firing has caused them. Several asked if Erickson plans to apologize to Paterno.
Erickson said it was not his place, since the board of trustees had fired the coach. He frequently reminded the audience that he reports to the board and can’t tell its members what to do. The response elicited groans and heckling.
Paterno’s ouster is a sore point for many alumni, most notably the football players who played under the legendary coach. Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris’ outrage prompted the former Pittsburgh Steeler to hold a competing event at the same hotel, drawing about 300 people.
”I can’t understand why it happened. … We have to be relentless. We have to keep fighting for Penn State,” Harris said. ”We can’t let the Board of Trustees or the media write the final chapter.”
Harris questioned Erickson’s leadership and the way the board has treated alumni who have questions.
”A lot of the answers that we want from the university aren’t coming forward. When they do say something, even today, what I most recently heard, they think we’re dumb,” Harris said. ”They want us to believe it was in the best interest of the school to fire Joe Paterno. No way was that in the best interest of the school.”
Several alumni thanked Erickson for holding the sessions, the third of which will be held Friday in New York, when board members have not.
”They seem to be hiding under a rock someplace,” said John Lagana, 74, of Chester Springs, Class of `62. ”I’m a big JoePa fan, and I think he was treated unjustly.”
Many alumni called for the board to resign, or worried about their diplomas being tarnished. Several said they were astonished that more wasn’t done to manage the looming crisis during the grand jury investigation.
The 67-year-old Sandusky is charged with sexually abusing 10 boys over a 15-year period. He maintains his innocence and remains out on $250,000 bail while awaiting trial.
Two Penn State administrators are facing charges they lied to a grand jury investigating Sandusky and failed to properly report suspected child abuse. Gary Schultz, a former vice president, and Tim Curley, the athletic director, have denied the allegations and await trial.
Retired journalist Francine Cheeks, of Philadelphia, said she was surprised at the ”unrelenting” focus on Paterno.
”Sue and Joe Paterno are not the primary victims in this whole scheme,” said Cheeks, Class of 1965. ”It’s children whose lives have been affected, and maybe destroyed, allegedly.”
Her college roommate, Marcia Hannah, of Wayne, fears the worst isn’t over for Penn State. She said the school wasn’t prepared for the media crush that followed the arrest of Sandusky and the school officials, and doubts they’re preparing now for their trials.
”They’re going to get buried again,” she said. ”This university is not taking care of itself.”
Former Penn State and pro football star Franco Harris scheduled a competing event at the King of Prussia hotel after broad dissatisfaction with Erickson’s first talk in Pittsburgh on Wednesday.
But even some critics say Erickson shouldn’t be getting all the blame for what many view as a floundering public relations effort.
A 2002 alumnus, Ryan Bagwell, who’s seeking a trustee seat in voting that will start next week, said Erickson ”takes his marching orders from the Board of Trustees,” which has ”sent him out on this three-day spree.”
”We want to hear from the trustees,” Bagwell said. ”We want them to explain why they made the decisions they did.”
The chairman and vice chairman of the Board of Trustees released a statement Thursday evening responding to questions raised at the Pittsburgh meeting, including about the firing of Paterno. Paterno, they said, was removed in November instead of being allowed to retire after the season because of ”extraordinary circumstances.”
”The details of his retirement are being worked out and will be made public when they are finalized,” said the statement from Chairman Steve Garban and Vice Chairman John Surma. ”Generally speaking, the University intends to honor the terms of his employment contract and is treating him financially as if he had retired at the end of the 2011 football season.”
Representatives for the Paterno family said Thursday the trustees’ statement came as a surprise.
Paterno’s son Scott Paterno responded it was becoming apparent that the coach’s firing Nov. 9, ”with no notice or hearing, was not handled well.”
The fired coach ”strongly believed everyone involved is entitled to due process,” his son said in a statement, adding that his parents still were ”unwavering in their loyalty and dedication to Penn State.”
Paterno has described the scandal as one of the great sorrows of his life and has said that in hindsight he wishes he had done more after allegations against Sandusky were raised.
While many alumni are unhappy about the way the school fired Paterno, some said there were no good options in the situation.
”I don’t think there was any graceful way to handle that problem,” said John Burness, a former senior vice president of public affairs for Cornell University, Duke University and the University of Illinois.
Associated Press writers Kevin Begos in Pittsburgh and Genaro C. Armas in State College contributed to this report.