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As new era begins at Penn State, challenges remain

SHARE As new era begins at Penn State, challenges remain

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — The shriek of the final whistle in Penn State's loss to Ohio University represented a milestone for the university as it struggles to move past the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal that has damaged it immeasurably over the past 10 months.

The first game under new coach Bill O'Brien began a new era for one of college football's elite programs, and the Saturday defeat at the hands of an underdog showed the team may face a long season ahead following the overhaul of its coaching staff and the departure of several star players.

Outside the stadium on Saturday the talk among tailgating fans was littered with the vocabulary of the Sandusky scandal — notably criticism of the NCAA sanctions, the Freeh report and the university's board of trustees.

"We can't move on until the board of trustees moves out," said Georgia Verkuilen, a State College native who now lives in Belvidere, N.J. She was handing out lung cancer awareness ribbons with the initials of Joe Paterno, the longtime coach died of complications from the disease in January, two months after being summarily fired by the board.

"They need to either step up or step down," Verkuilen said.

Fallout from Sandusky's arrest, trial and conviction for sexual abuse of children will remain a major challenge for the university for years to come, starting in a month or so when the national spotlight will return as the former assistant football coach learns what sentence the judge will impose.

The sentencing date has not been announced, but he is likely to serve the rest of his life in prison. Last week the state board that evaluates sex offenders made its recommendation that Sandusky fits the criteria to be declared a sexually violent predator.

The parallel criminal case, in which two university administrators faces charges they did not report suspected child abuse and then lied to the grand jury about it, was recently scheduled. Jury selection was set for Jan. 7 inside a county courtroom in Harrisburg.

The attorney general's office has repeatedly indicated some sort of grand jury investigation remains active in the matter, and if that produces charges the scandal could go in a new direction. That poses a particular risk for the university, given that questions remain about which officials were aware of Sandusky's behavior, when they knew it, and what they did — or didn't do — in response.

So far two people have sued Penn State, and a third has filed court paperwork indicating a civil complaint is being prepared, and several other lawyers have indicated they represent potential litigants. Penn State has signaled its interest in settling claims with Sandusky's victims, but no one can say how long the civil side will take to play itself out.

Mike Kitto, a Penn State alumnus who lives in Purcellville, Va., said before the game that there ought to be more focus on the victims, and less on Paterno and the former leaders of the university.

"They took care of that generation — it's gone," Kitto said. "Why are they penalizing this team, when the boys playing on the team were 4 years old when all this happened?"

Several fans said they suspected there was considerably more to be learned about what occurred, and hoped the court system might shed additional light on it.

"There needs to be more investigation into what certain officials did know," said Cheryl Bitano, a Penn State college graduate and an audiologist from Bridgeport, W.Va.

Penn State avoided its football program being shut down entirely by the NCAA when it agreed to a set of penalties and institutional changes, but paying off the $60 million fine will take five years and revisions to policies and procedures won't happen overnight.

The decisions made by Penn State trustees, both before Sandusky was charged and in the aftermath, have generated considerable animosity among students, faculty, alumni, donors and boosters, and the board faces a lot of work in mending fences. It also will have to spend much of the coming year in the hunt for a new president.

So far the school's vaunted fundraising apparatus has not suffered from the scandal, but some major donors are clearly upset at how Joe Paterno was treated, and by acquiescence to the NCAA sanctions. If they start to pull their support, that could do more to change the direction of the institution than anything else.

The U.S. Department of Education has been looking into whether Penn State violated the Clery Act, which mandates disclosure of campus crimes, and has been evaluating a request that it also open an inquiry into whether the university's handling of the Sandusky scandal ran afoul of the federal Title IX gender discrimination law.

Before the Ohio game, fan Bob Denezza said the return of football was a welcome change from the drumbeat of bad news generated by the Sandusky scandal.

"Personally, myself, I'm just tired of hearing about the whole thing," Denezza said.