|A news van is tipped over as Penn State fans mob the campus Wednesday night. (Getty Images)|
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- They came to Old Main by the hundreds, then the thousands, a wave of Penn State students who were angry or energized or maybe just curious to see what would happen next. Beloved football coach Joe Paterno had just been fired -- not given an early retirement, but fired -- and Penn State students swarmed the central administrative building on campus.
They wanted to be with people who think like they do, and there aren't many of them outside the State College city limits. Joe Paterno had to go. From what I can tell, from Twitter and talk radio and message boards and every other piece of information at my disposal, people around America understand that Paterno -- who in 2002 was one of a handful of people with the information necessary to stop alleged child predator Jerry Sandusky ... but didn't do it -- could not coach the Penn State football program for one more game.
People around State College don't understand. And so they came to Old Main late Wednesday night, running there from streets named Beaver and College and Park and University. They ran in packs of three and four and five, waving smart phones like torches, drawn to the growing roar at Old Main.
Paterno's firing was announced shortly after 10 p.m. By 10:30, the massive courtyard and grassy area in front of Old Main was full of Penn State students. The steps of the building were packed with students, some with bullhorns. They took up a series of chants, one cruder than the next, each expressing displeasure with Paterno's treatment or Sandusky's existence.
"We want Joe back, we want Joe back!"
That became, "F--- Sandusky! F--- Sandusky!"
Which rhymes with, "F--- the trustees! F--- the trustees!"
Which became, "F--- the media!"
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On and on it went, the crowd growing in size and volume and reaching its first crescendo when a student proffered a cardboard cutout of Paterno, and one kid with a megaphone demanded that Cardboard Joe be passed to the top of the stairs.
"Bring Joe up here!" the kid yelled.
The crowd went nuts, loving the only Paterno they would be able to see on this night. But then they turned ugly, chanting "A--holes, a--holes" as they rhythmically waved their arms at Old Main.
Police were nearby, watching but not reacting. There was nothing to stop, nothing illegal anyway.
Until the crowd decided to leave Old Main and head for the football stadium.
About halfway there, the mob ran out of gas at the corner of Beaver and Pugh, and that's where they set up shop for the next two hours. Thousands of kids filled the streets, turning State College into a scene out of Mardi Gras, and every few minutes a single young man would climb onto a street sign or a light post and shake the thing down. The crowd roared in approval and booed the police officers who responded.
It threatened to turn ugly several times. Two kids started throwing white objects toward a cluster of cops -- could have been eggs, could have been bread -- but the police refused to react. Every so often, a single voice would try to start this chant:
"F--- the po-lice!"
And every time, the chant would die. These people didn't want to get violent. Most of them just wanted to mill about, surround themselves with people who think like they do, worship the coach they worship, not understanding what most people outside of this area code seem to understand:
The Board of Trustees had no choice. To grow from this, to go forward and heal, Penn State cannot be known as the school that let Joe Paterno, who didn't do everything (or much of anything) in his power to stop a possible child predator, continue to coach. That would have been a disaster going forward, after this season, when Paterno had decided on his own he would retire. That failure to exorcise Paterno, in the wake of the horrific allegations against Sandusky, would have been held against Penn State in recruiting circles and in advertising circles and in public-opinion circles.
As it is, Penn State has a major image rehabilitation on its hands. Had it allowed Paterno to coach on Saturday, that rehab would have been even more difficult.
The kids at Penn State don't seem to get it, but in time they will. Maturity and distance and time will let them see things they cannot see now, in the self-centeredness of youth. Or maybe it won't. Maybe this is just a selfish batch of brats. I doubt that, but we'll see.
Meantime, State College has a cleanup on its hands. A handful of cars, most of them media trucks, were tipped over, spilling broken glass into the streets. Light poles and street signs and tree limbs were felled. An already battered image was given some fresh bruises at the hands of the very students who seem to love their school.
That's what rioters tend to do, though. They ruin where they live. Happens every time.
Happened Wednesday night in State College, where students were heard chanting, "We are ... Penn State."
Yes you are. Or, rather, yes you were.