STATE COLLEGE – Flowers and mementos left by supporters adorned Joe Paterno’s gravesite Tuesday, a year after the longtime Penn State coach’s death, while at the spot where a bronze statue of him used to stand, a makeshift sign of cardboard flapped in a cold wind.
“Joseph Paterno. Always remembered. Always a legend,” read the sign outside Beaver Stadium and attached to a tree with white wire.
The Hall of Fame coach died of lung cancer Jan. 22, 2012, at age 85. Besides the bouquets and signs, at least 150 supporters also marked the anniversary of his death with a candlelight vigil on a frigid evening at a downtown State College mural that includes a depiction of Paterno.
He died more than two months after being fired in the frantic days following the arrest of former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky on child molestation charges in November 2011. His legacy remains a sensitive topic for groups of alumni, former players and residents.
“I definitely think that everything that has happened isn’t at all indicative of the kind of man that he was,” said Bridget Beromedi, 32, of State College, who wore a shirt with Paterno’s image. She held up a sign that read “JoePa. Legends never die.”
She added that Paterno’s role in the scandal “got totally overblown because of his name. He got an unfair deal.”
Organizers lit candles inside white or blue paper bags, many inscribed with handwritten messages from supporters. The gathering slowly broke up within 45 minutes after mural artist Michael Pilato thanked attendees, several of whom wore “JVP” buttons on their winter parkas.
A family spokesman said the Paternos wouldn’t take part in public gatherings Tuesday.
A year ago, the campus was flooded with mourners. Commemorations were much smaller this year with temperatures in the teens.
Supporters like Dan Hamm, a freshman from Williamsport, have said Paterno’s 46-year career as a whole should be taken into consideration, including his focus on academics.
“We wanted to pay our respects. We wanted to celebrate who he was as a person,” Hamm said after visiting Paterno’s grave at a State College cemetery.
Then, nodding his head in the direction of Paterno’s adorned gravesite, Hamm said, “You can see here that Joe Paterno was Penn State, and Penn State will always be Joe Paterno.”
Former FBI director Louis Freeh released findings July 12 in the school’s internal investigation of the scandal. Paterno’s reputation was tarnished after Freeh accused the coach and three former school administrators of covering up allegations against Sandusky.
The retired defensive coordinator has been sentenced to at least 30 years in prison after being convicted of 45 criminal counts. Prosecutors said allegations occurred off and on campus, including the football facility. Sandusky has denied the allegations.
On July 22, Penn State removed Paterno’s statue, which was a gathering point for mourners last January. The next day, the NCAA reacted with uncharacteristic swiftness in levying strict sanctions including a four-year bowl ban, strict scholarship cuts and a $60 million fine.
Paterno was also stripped of 111 victories, meaning he no longer held the major college record of 409 career wins.
Paterno’s family and the three administrators have vehemently denied Freeh’s allegations, along with denying suspicions they took part in a cover-up. Also, Paterno’s family has been planning what a spokesman has called a comprehensive response to Freeh’s findings.
But on Tuesday, the family remained in privacy. A delivery man dropped off flowers at the Paternos’ modest ranch home in the afternoon, walking past a sign staked to the snow-covered lawn.
The sign read in part, “Thank you Joe! Thank you Sue!”, referring to Paterno’s widow. “RIP JoePa … 409 forever.”
The crowd at the vigil broke up after Pilato spoke for about five minutes. “If Joe Paterno is looking down on us tonight,” he said, “we all know that he is not concerned with that number (409), but with the people connected with those wins.
He also said that Paterno’s role was sensationalized in media coverage and by a rush to judgment. Pilato ended his talk by starting a chant of “Joe Paterno!”
Hamm’s friend, fellow freshman Nick Bucci, said he felt his school handled the scandal well overall, given the extent of the fallout, with some exceptions.
At some point, Bucci said, the school should honor Paterno. He referred to one suggestion that dated back years before Paterno’s death, of naming the field at the stadium after the coach.
But Bucci advocated for perspective.
“A day like today, those emotions might be high,” said Bucci, of Dayton, Md. “I don’t think now is the time to do it. I think you have to wait.”