Penn State’s athletic department on Thursday announced plans to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Joe Paterno’s first game as coach, a move that sparked backlash on social networks by people critical of Paterno’s role in the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
The university announced plans Thursday to mark the anniversary when the Nittany Lions football team hosts Temple on Sept. 17.
Athletic department spokesman Jeff Nelson told The Associated Press that Penn State plans to announce specifics of the commemoration to ticket holders during the week of the game. He declined further comment on the plans.
Paterno coached at Penn State for 46 seasons, becoming college football’s winningest coach. But the coach was fired by the school’s board of trustees shortly after Sandusky, who was his defensive coordinator, was arrested in November 2011 for child sexual abuse. Paterno died in January 2012 of lung cancer.
The announcement to honor Paterno’s first game was met with disdain on social media sites from those who partially blame Paterno for the scandal.
In May, unsealed court documents said an alleged Sandusky victim said he complained to Paterno about Sandusky in 1976 and was rebuffed. The university’s president, Eric Barron, has said the allegation was not substantiated in court or tested by any other process. Paterno was never charged with a crime related to the scandal.
Sandusky was convicted on 45 of 48 charges in June 2012 and is serving a 30- to 60-year sentence.
Moving forward from the scandal has proven a difficult challenge for Penn State, requiring leaders to balance distancing the university from the scandal while juggling the wishes of ardent Penn State supporters who credit Paterno for giving the university an identity to be proud of.
“Depending on their position people may look at him differently, but it doesn’t change that he created that here. Or helped to create that here,” Athletic Director Sandy Barbour told the AP in August.
The Paterno Foundation had already scheduled a private celebration of the 50th anniversary of Paterno’s first game as head coach with a Football Lettermen’s reunion on Sept. 16 at Lubrano Park in State College. Penn State alum and university trustee Anthony Lubrano has been part of a group of Paterno supporters that have been pushing for the school to officially recognize the anniversary.
The statue of Paterno was removed from outside Beaver Stadium on July 22, 2012 and highly visible, university sponsored signs of him are mostly hard to find. Paterno’s name is still on the campus library, which was built in part by his donations.
In May, the Penn State Alumni Association sent a letter to Barron, the Paterno family and the board of trustees encouraging all sides to reconcile before the 50th anniversary of Paterno’s debut.
It noted that 91 percent of respondents to an alumni survey felt the university should publicly honor Paterno for his contributions to Penn State.
The alumni association did not immediately respond to a call from the AP.
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