A Week at Penn State

VIDEO: A look at Dave Kinchen’s reporting on the Penn State child sex abuse scandal.

I remember the old days in East Lansing, Michigan when I would get together with the gents for a burger and football talk at the legendary Crunchy’s restaurant. We were a mixture of Michigan State students, alumni and fans, always eager to size up our team on the field leading into a big Saturday contest. It never came down to just talk of our Spartans of course. Our conversations touched on many of the other teams in the Big Ten conference; from the Wolverines down the road in Ann Arbor to Purdue, Wisconsin, and Penn State.

Even eight hours away from State College, PA to my home state, we knew Nittany Lions head coach Joe Paterno as “Joe Pa.” There was always a level of respect there. Of course we always wanted our boys to beat the Lions every year, but there was always a fundamental enjoyment of the battle.

Fast forward to November 2011, where a new job in Philadelphia would quickly thrust me right in the middle of the biggest assignment I had ever covered: horrifying allegations of child sexual abuse against former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. Obviously if true, the crimes would be among the biggest tragedies to shake college football.

Far more important and impactful that that is the lifelong pain suffered by the victims, with wounds re-opened as the story dominates virtually every television broadcast and every newspaper front page. The awful details in the Grand Jury report made it clear this story was bigger than the twenty three page account of events and key figures.

The story broke on a Saturday as I recall when I was working on another assignment. I first saw the original story online. Sandusky had been arrested, charges were imminent, and Athletic Director Tim Curley along with Gary Shultz both stepped down. Shultz was the vice president for business and finance. Both were accused of lying about being informed that Sandusky had allegedly engaged in sexual acts with a boy in the team showers.

At that point, I thought this couldn’t have possibly gotten any bigger…that is unless there were more questions surrounding Paterno and what he and others might have known and done (or not done). It was, however, known early on that Paterno had been informed by a then-graduate assistant about the alleged shower incident, but that he reported it up the chain of command, to the AD.

The Story Grows
Then people started asking louder: Why didn’t Joe Paterno take the allegations to police? That’s when the story got bigger. I had gone to a local PSU campus to get reaction from students but things soon got much more involved. Next thing I knew, I was on the road to State College for a four day assignment. I would soon be in the middle of one of the state’s biggest stories in history, let alone a national talker. It was probably the biggest scandal to hit college football in generations, if not ever.

I left Philadelphia on Wednesday, Nov. 9th and worked the phones all the way through the mountainous drive into Central PA, trying to reach members of the PSU Board of Trustees. Word was they had a teleconference the night before and that one could happen that night. Was it damage control? Was someone getting the ax? No one knew at that point, but I was sure as hell trying to find out.

Joe Paterno’s weekly football press conference was abruptly canceled the day before. We knew something was happening at that point. A regularly scheduled, routine press conference to talk about the previous game, injuries, depth charts and the next game being shut down? Did that mean Paterno was compromised? It became clear he could not do his job without the cloud of controversy growing thicker. At least that’s what University President Graham Spanier seemed to have thought when he pulled the plug on the presser. It was his decision (and the last big one he made).

Pressing the Governor
In any event, I got the clear sense that the board was scrambling. In fact, I was en route to meet one of the key board members at an event on the way to State College, just outside of Harrisburg, the state capital. His name was Tom Corbett. Corbett was also the governor of the state, and the state attorney general about a year before that. There were questions around him as well. What did he know? Was he aware of the allegations as AG? Who did he think was to blame?

He wouldn’t go into many details when he did speak with media, after signing the state’s new ban on texting while driving. He did say he was upset more was not done in the name of preventing other cases of abuse. He also acknowledged his then-AG office did get notice of an investigation, but did not go into many specifics due to the nature of the ongoing case.

After pressing Corbett for more answers (and not getting many), my photojournalist and I continued our trip to State College. One the way, news broke that Paterno would retire at the end of the season. Once getting to campus, we grabbed as many interviews with students as we could, getting their reaction to Paterno leaving. We also had to link up with the FOX News satellite truck to present our story on Corbett for the 5pm and 6pm newscasts. Little did I know at that time, our assignment would change dramatically later that evening.

After getting our story written, cut and fed back to the station we found the FOX truck by Beaver Stadium and prepared to go live. I had been scheduled to front my stories for the 5pm and 6pm shows but also delivered live reports and provided question and answer talkbacks with FOX television stations in Tampa, Dallas, and Washington D.C. The story was the mood on campus regarding the Paterno end-of-season retirement, along with sentiments on the investigation.

An Impromptu Meeting
All through the 5pm and 6pm hours, rumors kept swirling of an impromptu meeting scheduled by the Board of Trustees. Our partners on location with the FOX News Channel confirmed a meeting was taking place, but the location had not been released.

What was the point of this meeting? The big one was scheduled for Friday. Who knew what was going to develop, but I had the feeling it was going to be something big.

I ended up with word that the meeting would take place at Old Main, the administration building on campus. I showed up there with other media from Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and other state markets and found students outside, waiting for board members. Then came word that the meeting would be held at the Penn Stater, a hotel near campus. Photojournalist Joel and I then switched locations along with the other crews and found media gathered at the bottom of a stairwell where it appeared that board members would speak with media sometime before or after meeting. Police were also in the building, securing the meeting site; yet another clue that something big was about to go down.

In the meantime, the clock was ticking. I had to be on air at 10pm to deliver the news of the day on the Paterno situation, but everything was changing. We also had logistical challenges. We were told of a press conference that would happen sometime around 10pm. We had to be on air at that time. Also, we didn’t know where it would take place. A staffer apparently with the Board told us one room, then another. When we got to the final location, the door was locked. We also wanted to carry the meeting live, through an internet system we have while I prepared to go live on the newscasts, and the satellite truck was on the other side of the building. It was chaos.

A New Story
Once the Board members took their places, I went outside to prepare to go live while listening to the meeting in my ear piece. The board had just announced a change of leadership was needed in the football program and in the university as a whole. In simple terms they fired Paterno and Spanier. As I guessed, the whole story had changed. Within no time I was live on the air. I was able to provide some context to the most recent events in my report by discussing all of the developments throughout the day. I told the viewers about how quickly the meeting came together, and how the signs of massive change were in the air.

Before too long, students hit the streets rioting. A television truck was flipped over. Car windshields were smashed and shattered. Police were making arrests. Reporter Bruce Gordon and Photojournalist Elaine went to cover that while I was dispatched to Paterno’s house, where students and fans were packing his lawn and driveway in droves. Would Joe Pa come out? It turned out he would!

VIDEO: A group of reporters talk with Joe Paterno, moments after he was fired as PSU head football coach.

That’s where this video comes in. I was one of a few reporters to respectfully approach Joe Paterno and his wife Sue as he came out to make his first public comments since being fired. “A phone call put me out of it,” he said to the crowd, predominately made up of students who were less than thrilled about the media being there.

A phone call? Wow. That’s a heck of a way to go out. I’m not defending or condemning Paterno here. Just amazed at the way such a storied career came to an end.

The rest of my time in State College, consisted much of staking out Paterno’s house along with ESPN, state media and even the NFL Network at one point, in hopes that Paterno would come out to talk with reporters and give a more in-depth account of the situation. We watched as former players, current players, students, former staffers of his and family members came by to visit and pay tribute to Paterno. However, it seemed increasingly less likely that he would come out after reports surfaced that he hired a criminal defense attorney. Pennsylvania’s attorney general made it clear Paterno was not a target of the investigation, but that did not mean he would not be the target of civil action. In a FOX 29 exclusive, I was able to reach his son Jay Paterno (quarterbacks coach for PSU, and still employed with the university at the time). I asked him about the reports of his dad lawyering up, but he would not comment.

The Big Game
I remained largely camped out at the Paterno house until Saturday’s big game against Nebraska. It was an emotional one. The players walked out on to the field without a leader (usually Paterno would front the team in a run out on to the field). Penn State’s players joined Nebraska’s team on the field for a prayer and moment of silence honoring the victims of child sexual abuse. I don’t think I saw an empty seat in the house, let alone a dry eye.

The University made it clear the game was about the victims and not Paterno, although officials did say he was welcome to attend. That did not mean there wasn’t a major show of support for Paterno, with newly created shirts thanking him for his service, and others making signs honoring their longtime coach. It was a historic moment. The first game in more than 40 years to be coached without Paterno, though his son Jay was on the field working alongside interim head coach Tom Bradley.

His emotions were obvious at times, especially during the post game interview with ESPN. He was later surrounded by journalists including myself after the game where he expressed his emotions more in-depth. The new president of the university, Rodney Erickson also made an appearance. He told the media about his conversation with the football team, saying he praised them for remaining strong and united during a trying time.

It did seem as if the game helped the community heal. What began with rioting and then a vigil later in the week honoring the victims, concluded with more than 100,000 people gathered in one place to pray, and mend before the great American tradition of college football.

I finally had time to put my own thoughts together, on my way back to Philadelphia. I was shocked that I would go from following the storied tale of Paterno as an everyday college football spectator, to covering the biggest scandal to rock the PSU program, thus taking down his career. I was amazed at how widespread the scandal was.

My time and that of the many journalists in State College may have ended as the week drew to a close, but the story was far from over.

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