By Michael Donovan
Penn State will honor the late Joe Paterno tomorrow by having the co-captains from his first Nittany Lions team participate in the coin toss and by airing video presentations “on the impact to student-athletes,” the university said Thursday.
Penn State announced on Sept. 1 that it planned to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Paterno’s first game at the school — a 15-7 win over Maryland on Sept. 17, 1966 — but declined to provide any details at the time.
The decision to honor the longtime coach sparked widespread debate. Paterno was fired in 2011 amid the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal
Current Penn State coach James Franklin sidestepped questions Tuesday about the event, saying, “All of those decisions, like I’ve stated before, they’re for the administration. Our focus is on Temple.”
In a written statement, athletic director Sandy Barbour said, “Coach Paterno wanted academic success not only for his players but also for every student who came through Penn State. Together with his wife, Sue, they helped countless students become leaders and earn a Penn State diploma. Our plans are consistent with the wishes of the Paterno family as well, with a focus on the players and their accomplishments at Penn State and beyond.”
Mike Irwin and John Runnells, captains of the 1966 team, will be hand on for the coin toss. Barbour said “further in-game introductions of players will take place, along with video presentations on the impact to student-athletes.”
A Penn State spokesperson declined to comment further.
The Paterno Foundation, which is not affiliated with the university, announced earlier this week that several hundred former Nittany Lions football players are expected to attend a private event today to celebrate the coach’s career. The event will take place at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park, which is near Beaver Stadium.
Sue Paterno announced plans for the lettermen reunion last November.
Warren Hartenstine played on Paterno’s first team in 1966 and was one of a handful of former players to help the Paterno family organize Friday’s reunion. As he prepared to leave his Maryland home for State College, he described his emotions in a telephone interview with the Associated Press. He said he understands and accepts that Paterno has become a polarizing figure.
“Coach Paterno, I think in many ways was naive about everything in the world except football and human growth,” Hartenstine said. “We were the fulfillment of what his life’s goals were. He adopted my family, my college roommates, everyone. You were just very special to him. How to respond to the accusations? There’s a sense of impossibility about it.”
But Hartenstine said he doesn’t consider the reunion a celebration of Paterno. Rather, it’s about recognizing the achievements of players who were a part of the coach’s “Grand Experiment” that placed an emphasis on academics.
“The emphasis has been not so much on Joe Paterno,” Hartenstine said. “This is about the men of the Grand Experiment. (Sue Paterno) repeats it over and over again that the accomplishments of lettermen are what this is a celebration of. I shouldn’t even say lettermen. There are walk-ons that were there, some on our team, who put in their four years and worked, very, very hard.”
In May, unsealed court documents revealed that an alleged Sandusky victim said he complained to Paterno about the former assistant coach in 1976 and was rebuffed. University president Eric Barron has said the allegation was not substantiated in court or tested by any other process.
Paterno was never charged with a crime related to the scandal.
Paterno finished his career as the winningest coach in FBS history with 409 victories, but he was fired in November 2011, shortly after his former defensive coordinator, Sandusky, was arrested for child sexual abuse.
Paterno died in January 2012 of lung cancer. The university removed his iconic statue from outside the stadium six months later. Sandusky was convicted on 45 of 48 charges in June 2012 and is currently serving a 30- to 60-year sentence.