Karen Heller: A focus laser-like yet wrong

Joe Paterno in September, during his last season as Penn State head coach. Many alumni continue to mourn his ouster. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer)

On the second night of the university's three-stop Anger Management tour, an anguished alumnus said: "He's the single most important Penn Stater in the history of the university."

Paul Berg, winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize in chemistry? Sweater-vesting Rick Santorum?

No, Joe Paterno, the coach who put the "Happy" in Happy Valley and then, with his November ouster in the wake of the school's sex-abuse scandal and cover-up, turned Penn State nation truly blue.

Sadly, the graduate is correct.

Paterno is the most famous Penn Stater, by far, in the university's 150-year history.

At a meeting Thursday night in King of Prussia, attended by 650 passionate alumni the talk was almost exclusively about Paterno (godlike) and the board of trustees that removed him (evil incarnate).

There was virtually no mention of the dozen boys allegedly raped and molested by former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky while officials stood silent and did little to stop him from potentially harming again - following the omerta that poisons Division I sports.

"We cannot forget that Penn State is, and historically has been, one of America's great universities," said university president Rodney Erickson, who replaced Graham Spanier, forced out the same month as the venerable coach. "Under my administration, I will not allow this great university, and its long and historic legacy as a leader in higher education, to be defined by this horrible tragedy."

But tragedy is precisely what the faithful wanted to address.

In their minds, the tragedy was the loss of Joe Paterno.

Alumni forgot that Penn State is one of America's great universities and not merely another Boise State, a football school.

The Penn State healing expedition, with stops in Pittsburgh and Manhattan, was part of what Erickson wrote about in a confidential memo: "taking control of the narrative of our story."

How's that working?

Last week, the narrative jumped the goalpost.

The university memos, obtained this month by the Associated Press, detail "talking points" for dealing with donors, many of whom give millions for athletics.

One such donor, Anthony Lubrano (of Lubrano Park, the school's baseball stadium), held a rival "counter-informational" gathering down the hall at the same hotel Thursday with former Penn State and Steelers running back Franco Harris.

"Before we heal and move forward, we have to address what ails us," Lubrano told Erickson before his bitch-fest, what ails them being firing Paterno.

Lubrano became convinced, after speaking with 17 university trustees, that the alleged rape and molestation of young boys was merely an excuse to ax the coach.

"His firing had nothing to do with Sandusky," Lubrano told The Inquirer's Frank Fitzpatrick. Paterno "had become less involved in fund-raising, and there'd been some falling-out with Spanier. Spanier got to the point where he really wanted to replace him."

So the decision to get rid of Paterno was about politics, money, and football - the issues that really matter - not horrific abuse and cover-up.

In State College, the coach was known as "JoePa," but, really, he was the school's infallible Il Papa, the pope.

"In hindsight, I wish I had done more," Paterno said in November. In an interview with the Washington Post's Sally Jenkins published Sunday, he noted, "I didn't know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was."

Erickson, trying to control the narrative, told alumni Thursday, "It grieves me very much when I hear people say 'the Penn State scandal.' This is not Penn State. This is 'the Sandusky scandal.' "

When amid a spectacular crack-up of morality the president of a great university has to remind alumni of their school's greatness, you have a Penn State problem.

When those alumni want only to debate the removal of an 85-year-old football coach who should have retired years ago, you have a Penn State problem.

And when virtually no alumni want to speak about the real calamity - a dozen boys allegedly brutalized on campus, administrative inaction that enabled further assaults - you have yet another Penn State scandal in the making.


Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586, kheller@phillynews.com, or @kheller on Twitter.