on Joe Pa

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“Do you think the brand of Penn State is well known everywhere in the US ? Has it helped you in your career” asked a curious classmate to an alumnus during the MBA orientation sessions, when much of the crowd was still confused/doubted if they picked the right school, as if it wasn’t too late to change that.
“Who doesn’t know the name Joe Pa in the US ?” replied the alumnus, to which the crowd laughed in acceptance.

I, still confused, asked my neighbour, what the reply was. I was repeated the above sentence, as if it should have been clear at least by then. I had done my research about the school – that it was ranked so and so in so and so concentrations; that our seniors met Warren Buffett, that it can be inexpensive to study here with a good ROI. What hadn’t come across in my research was the ‘football’ program. I was also not able to link a university sports to an MBA career.

What was not clear to me then was that our MBA program itself didn’t have its own brand, unless associated with the university, pretty much the case elsewhere in the country. What was not clear was that football is not just a college sport, but a ritual attended & discussed every saturday during the fall semester. And with any football fan elsewhere in the country, irrespective of the context. The conversation starter, ice breaker were only two things – weather and sports, we were told. What was not clear was that, the football was as much a part of University as was the University of football. Sounds weird but over the next few months I realized that students don’t join Penn State and become football fans/players, but students join Penn State because they are football fans/players. All of this is obvious to Americans, but not for an international like myself.

My research, in fact, started with understanding this ‘walking god’ named Joe Pa. That he was 80+ years old, and still the coach of the program. That he walks or rather runs with the players into the field at the start of every game. That he has been the coach for 40+ years. When I later tried to explain his importance, his reputation, his impact to my brother, I tried to search for a comparable name in Indian sports – Sachin ? No, he is just a player, a very good one, but still isn’t as revered or loved as unanimously as Joe Pa was, here. Also, despite having the longest career, it is still half of that of Joe Pa’s. In the leadership or in the impact on a society outside the sports field, again no comparison. And, there wasn’t a soul that didn’t absolutely love Joe Pa without reservation. Sachin failed on most counts.

Further stories, which were sometimes as unbelievable as urban myths, of Joe Pa convinced that he was something different. I was jealous of a classmate who had a picture taken with him, by chance when Joe Pa walked near our business building. I had almost literally spent my life at the Business Building during the 2nd year of my MBA, including weekends, but not once did I have that opportunity. Later, at one of the games someone posted on the social network “I think I saw him blink. [He is real]”.

During the 2nd year of my MBA, I went to a few games. The times I went to the stadium – one of the largest that holds 110k audience – my eyes searched to glimpse this too-good-to-be-real character. To be able to post “I saw him blink” status. But all that I could manage was JoePa on large screen, even in the stadium. Always larger than life, to me.

400 wins. Someone clarified that while everyone is gloating about the past 400 victories, Joe Pa has 401 in his mind. Either that he did, or the image of the person in people’s minds did. [I searched to include that cartoon, but can’t find in web search]

After some time , we go on and believe that people we love think and act in a way we expect them to, convinced of our beliefs in them. Our beliefs in them to do the right thing according to us. Long ago when I argued that there is a mention in the holy scriptures that our gods consumed alcohol or ate meat, the believer argued that the version of the scripture I read was manipulated or compromised, but our gods would never have. The facts are not facts if they don’t follow ‘our’ beliefs.

There was a report of another football coach having cheated/lied about something in regards to his football players. It was a big violation of the code. Penn State was held in example of how there hasn’t been a single unethical example in the entire history. How success comes with honor. How ethics is more important than wins.

I graduated MBA and my family attended the ceremonies. I still struggled to explain Joe Pa to my brother. Along with ritualistic, mandatory posing next to the Nittany Lion statue, I also took pictures next to Joe Pa. I showed my brother the statue, narrated the achievements, showed the merchandise – the Joe Pa merchandise includes tshirts, mugs, hats, and uncountable others. Yet, I was sure he couldn’t grasp in a day what I had failed to grasp the magnanimity after living here for 2 years and reading innumerable stories.

I got a job in State College and continued to live in my beloved college town. ‘It is all the same, instead of taking a right turn to the university, I take a left turn to my work, I wrote.

“I am jealous of you getting to live in State College!” said friends on social networks.


And then it hit the fan. A sex scandal right under the nose of infallible Joe Pa. Sexual exploitation and harassment of minor boys by a senior football coach Sandusky, which continued for years – by the person who ran the charity organization that rescued orphan boys. From Joe Pa didn’t know, to ‘he knew but didn’t act’, to covered it – we heard it all. From the “purest” image to “dirtiest/disgusting/cruel”. Nothing could breach both boundaries.

In the past and in the subsequent days pages have been written about how football is or isn’t all about Penn State and vice versa. It isn’t today. There have been stellar achievements from Penn State’s science, agriculture, information technology, energy and business schools (and probably from every other college from the university). But it didn’t start this way. It was a “cow college”. Knowing a bit or two about branding, one can’t try to rise in all sectors at once – Penn State became known for football. Then riding on that wave, everything improved. Even now, football is the only sport from Penn State that was making money, upwards of $90 million I had read somewhere. Rest of all the sports were supported by this revenue source. At the same time, it is true that it would be a disservice to other amazing programs to say that Penn State is just [due to] football. The point is, we will never be able to analyze the impact of football on Penn State or view this university isolating football. And I am not even talking about his/his family’s direct contribution to the library etc.

Joe Pa was rumoured to coach his last game that weekend after the charges were filed in the Sandusky case. But the already surreal story had more twists, in fact it had just begun. Fiction is often more kind. Joe Pa was fired over the phone by the Penn State board of Trustees.

Students ran to streets. Uprooted trees. Shattered the windows of TV channel vans; adding fuel to the fire to the already-hungry news channels who milked the situation for days. Social networking sites filled with individual opinions of what/who is right and wrong. Everyone became a judge while at the same time blaming media trial.

“Why doesn’t he say anything” asked people when he didn’t speak. “What he said was cowardly” said they when he did. “Even now he thinks better of the victims” said some. “Just football matters” said others. “Respect” “Disgusting”. Everyone said everything.

“How is it to live in State College ? Must be hard. What do you think of so and so ?” said friends on social networks. “I don’t want to talk about it, everyone seems to have an opinion. I know as much as you do from the news and internet” said I.

Oh, at other times, I have received this too from ignoramuses (not sure how to describe – with or without sarcasm/ in a hurtful jovial way/ just plain uneffingbelievable way — but is true, no exaggeration ) “Is it safe to visit state college without getting raped ? Sandusky is still free and might be waiting to jump on us” to “Oh yeah, Penn State is very popular now.. we all know about Penn State” with a victorious laughter.

At various times, I recall an article written by a visiting football fan to Penn State[in ‘09 or ‘10], whose team had won an important game, giving them edge in the arch rivalry that spanned many years. He explained how Penn State fans were gracious in defeat, never giving in to the humiliation or the suggested mockery, and treating the guests/visitors and deserved winners with respect. Given how much alcohol and emotion is invested/involved during the game weekends, it was a moving reminder of what is meant by the ‘Penn State culture’ and invariably one person had a large hand in shaping that over the years/decades. [I can’t find that article online despite using best search terms to describe it].

Now the same ‘Penn State culture’ , ‘Penn State way’ is made to sound like a horrible thing and the cause for the cover up of the scandal, by the media & outsiders.

The sole example of ethical integrity was now in the center of the worst possible scandal. I can’t find a bigger example to define irony and shock.

The ‘visiting’ media vans put up a permanent tent in State College. Old main seemed like being constantly watched. White-out attempted to become blue-out and probably settled to be a blue & white out.

There were dark clouds in the once happy valley.

Not a social gathering, not a conversation went without passing judgements. Every word from Joe Pa, who said “Now that I look back, I could/should have done more” , was put under lens. Every word from every person was quoted.

Joe Pa was diagnosed to have cancer. Another stream of sadness all around.

Joe Pa was blamed. Media was blamed. Everyone was blamed.

The glory of 61 years of service; the wins & successes ; the urban legends all on one side. The ethical and moral failure, that was exposed just a few months ago, on the other side. The stark and sudden contrast was too much to comprehend for me.

He finished his journey. “Another sad day for most Penn Staters. Joe Pa, rest in peace. Peace which wasn’t yours at the end of a glorious, long and noble life you lived that touched many, many lives directly or indirectly. What an end :'( but more importantly what a life !” I said on the social networks. Students and other residents participated in the candle light vigil.

“Unfortunately he won’t be remembered for what all he did, but would be remembered for what he didn’t do” said someone. Another person hoped otherwise.

One of my friends went to pay last respects. I saw the long queue. I had half an intention to visit. For all of two and half years, I have tried to size up this larger than life person. I have read innumerable articles. I didn’t feel that I would want to see his dead body and reduce him to a mere mortal, which I am now fully aware that he was.

I watched the entire memorial service on TV.

The story continues. The trials, Freeh report, media analysis. Whatever was white now comes with a black dot. Or rather the black dot is so big that the white pales in comparison.
How ironical and worse could it get than that the place where most shameful crime has been committed, has this for its ‘The Alma Mater’

May no act of ours bring shame
To one heart that loves thy name,
May our lives but swell thy fame,
Dear old State, dear old State

Heister street mural has seen many changes in just a year. It will continue to change.
A protest to remove the statue of Joe Pa by flying the banner in the sky. Duly complied.

Sanctions and penalties. Reduced scholarships, fine, no ball games for 4 years, and vacating the wins there by reducing the number of victories from 400+ to under 300.

The complete truth/picture will probably never emerge – or whatever emerges is hard to believe and comprehend.

Just the way it always was, for me.

Yeah Penn State/Joe Pa, today, is known to everyone in this country or whoever has any exposure to media. Even those who didn’t know a bit about football. Exactly due to the same person. But for all the wrong reasons. In the three years I have been here, decades of impression/reputation has changed dramatically. Irreversibly.

PS: Obviously, my heart goes out to the victims and the horror of a crime that has been committed. I also blame the hypocrisy, misplaced priorities, lack of sound thought processes and the failure of the system. However, this post is not about my opinions. I just wanted to jot down how things have changed in the last 3 years, at various points, especially with respect to Joe Pa, for an outside observer, for me.

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