Scandal-battered Penn State prepares for football opener

STATE COLLEGE, Pennsylvania Fri Aug 31, 2012 12:54pm EDT

Penn State football players Eric Shrive (75), Adam Gress (58) and Derek Day (24) hold a camera and microphone during Penn State football pre-season media day in State College, Pennsylvania August 9, 2012. REUTERS/Pat Little

Penn State football players Eric Shrive (75), Adam Gress (58) and Derek Day (24) hold a camera and microphone during Penn State football pre-season media day in State College, Pennsylvania August 9, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Pat Little

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STATE COLLEGE, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - Penn State on Saturday plays its first football game since an agonizing off-season, when ex-assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted of child sex abuse, legendary former head coach Joe Paterno died and the NCAA stripped the university of 111 wins.

The delirium that normally precedes the season at Penn State has been replaced by exhaustion.

With the nationally televised game against Ohio University set to kick off at noon EDT, there are no "Beat the Bobcats" signs on campus. The Paterno statue that attracted the faithful outside of Beaver Stadium has been replaced by two large green mounds of grass.

Yellow balloons scattered about campus promote "Fresh Start," referring to a volunteer day of service, not football.

"There is fatigue over the Sandusky scandal," said Jed Donahue, a sports talk radio host in Pennsylvania who has been covering the university since 1986 and has been listening to the laments of fans and alumni for the past 10 months.

"This will be the first game they've played since Sandusky was convicted, the NCAA sanctions. I mean, they've been like a piƱata; they've really been hit around, hit hard," Donahue said.

The somber mood may change once the anticipated 100,000 fans pack into Beaver Stadium and take up the thunderous cheer in which one side bellows "We are ..." and the other side answers "Penn State."

For now, the Sandusky scandal still hangs over the university, belying the image of "Happy Valley," as the area is known, and the school's motto of "Success with Honor."

A banner hanging on the Osmond Laboratory invited students to seek a "mantra of happiness," but the enticement was for a clinic on the "yoga of sound vibration" and not about the sound grandstands make when fans stomp in unison.

A Centre County grand jury last November charged Sandusky with multiple counts of child sexual abuse from 1994 to 2009. A jury in June would convict him of 45 of 48 counts for abusing 10 boys, and he faces a sentence of hundreds of years in prison.

A HORRIBLE YEAR

Shortly after the charges became known, Paterno announced he would retire at the end of the 2011 football season, but the university board of trustees instead said Paterno and university President Graham Spanier had been fired, effective immediately. Paterno died two months later at age 85.

In July, a scathing report by former FBI director Louis Freeh accused Paterno and others of covering up Sandusky's abuse for years to protect a multimillion-dollar football program.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association then issued an unprecedented penalty, fining the university $60 million, erasing 14 years of victories and banning Penn State from bowl games for four seasons.

In response, the university has taken measures to raise awareness of child sexual abuse, including an investment of $1.1 million in the Center for the Protection of Children in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

Money from the NCAA fine will go into a fund meant to prevent child abuse and protect victims.

Penn State has planned a conference in October to discuss prevention and care for victims, and one vendor is selling blue T-shirts to raise money for rape victims with the slogan: "We are ... one team, one school, one heart, one promise."

Still, with a new season set to begin, few want to reflect on the tumultuous past.

Penn State's public information and sports information departments declined Reuters requests for comment.

A burly student wearing a T-shirt with the anti-NCAA slogan "We Are ... Pissed Off" quickened his pace when a visitor identified himself as a reporter. A female student said she could only talk without being identified because "I'm an athlete, and we're not supposed to talk."

Others were distracted by the start of the semester. New students were walking around with campus maps, and many could be heard asking for directions.

Storekeepers on College Avenue, where shops offer an array of slogan-filled T-shirts, also declined to be interviewed.

"When you talk to Penn State fans and alumni, they love this team," Donahue said. "Because the guys that came back and didn't transfer are coming with the Penn State name and now (their last names are) on the back of their jerseys."

(Editing by Daniel Trotta and Todd Eastham)

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