|Can I still be a fan?|
That bond became more than genetic over the years as I grew fonder of the school and its roving personnel. The one constant was always Joe Paterno on the sideline, a guy who "always did it the right way". I was proud to have him as a coach, even as he aged. He was venerable. He was an institution. Even as my distaste for everything Florida State waned and waxed over the years, it still never sat right with me the way Bobby Bowden was forced out, and to me, he was always the antithesis of Paterno - sleazy, conniving and brash. Still, the man put FSU on the map, and he was still an effective head coach. I think he deserved to leave on his own terms, just as I thought Paterno deserved to leave on his, critics be damned.
That all changed in November of last year. That's when the scandal hit that avuncular former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was accused of being a monster, a sexual predator, a pedophile who preyed on the boys he was tasked with helping through his Second Mile charity. The narrative shifted from "Joe Paterno: Coach who did things the right way" to "What did JoePa know, and when did he know it?" It turns out that there was tangible evidence that he knew in 2002 when assistant coach Mike McQueary, who walked in on Sandusky anally violating a young boy in the PSU showers, came to him with the information. Paterno in turn went to athletic director Tim Curley, who went to University president Graham Spanier. Not one of the four in the chain of command went to the police.
Furthermore, the timing of Sandusky's dismissal as defensive coordinator in 1999 was suspicious. He was still at a viable age to be in the position, and he was also a Penn State lifer. He never strayed from the campus, even as there were schools who would line up to have a guy of his pedigree coach for them, either as coordinator or head coach. The man was in charge of defenses that won National Championships in the '80s and should have won at least one title in the '90s (or shared it... I'm of full mind that if Penn State and Nebraska had played each other on a neutral field 100 times in 1994, it would have been at the very least a 50/50 split). It was curious that he would retire quietly. Accusations that Paterno knew even then or before that time swirl due to those circumstances, but the fact that something concrete was there on the table 10 years ago and did nothing makes this story all the more harrowing and horrible.
The thing with my personal fandom of Penn State is that I was a fan of the school as much for the coach as I was for the colors and the program. Northeasterners are different animals altogether when it comes to college football anyway. Alabama fans shout ROLL TIDE whether the coach is Bear Bryant, Nick Saban or Mike Shula. USC fans are used to having hired guns as coaches, but as long as those hired guns beat UCLA, produce Heisman-caliber running backs or quarterbacks and have a national profile, it's alright by them. Other Big 10 fans live and die by their rivalry games, trophies and whether or not they have a chance to go to the Rose Bowl.
For those living in the corridor between the Canadian border in Maine and Washington DC though, college football isn't the religion that it is elsewhere. We are more in tune with pro sports. New York doesn't have a native FBS team. Philly has Temple. DC has Maryland and Navy, neither of which inspires great fear of tradition in anyone else except Virginia and Army fans, respectively. Boston's feelings towards college football can be summed up by Bill Simmons' relative ignorance of the topic except to say "Fuck Boston College". It's not the norm (Jamie "jerseyboy" Giouard is a huge Big East/Rutgers guy despite coming from the heart of college football apathy land, so there are exceptions) for us to get hype for college football season. Rather, we put our eggs in the baskets of the pro sports teams. The Eagles, Red Sox, Yankees, Flyers, Celtics, Redskins and other teams that reside within the East Coast Megalopolis capture our imagination in the same way that those below the Mason-Dixon Line live and die by the SEC slate on CBS every Saturday.
So when I say that the biggest reason why I have been a Penn State fan over the years was the fact that Joe Paterno was just a larger than life, iconic figure in sport that transcended the game, I am not exaggerating. Now that that image has been at the very least tarnished due to the fact that he at best didn't do enough to turn in Sandusky and at worst hid him while using senility as cover, I don't know what I can believe about the sport. I don't know where I'm going to turn.
Do I go back to Penn State, start over again and try to love the program the way that a SEC team's fan loves theirs? Do I stay local and support a true underdog in Temple? Do I go with my cause du jour and take up the perennial BCS party crasher Boise State? Do I farm my fandom out to a wholly different team like Oregon, Iowa, Utah or some other disparate school? Or do I attempt to watch college football like I watch wrestling, with passing rooting interests here or there, but with more of an interest in seeing a good game rather than rooting for a team to win? I seriously don't know at this point.
This might have been an exercise in futility. I don't know what the college football season will bring with the exception that yes, in two years Virginia, we're going to have a playoff finally (VERY EXCITE! VERY EXCITE!). That being said, I know it's going to be different. A lot of what shaped my fanhood vis a vis Penn State was the fact that Joe Paterno was a living saint in some respects. The lesson learned here is that no one in sports deserves that veneration. No one, even if they do seem like they're doing the right thing all the time on the surface.