Penn State fans crowd game under Bill O'Brien

Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien speaks to

Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien speaks to the media after losing to the Ohio Bobcats at Beaver Stadium. (Sept. 1, 2012) (Credit: Getty Images)

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State fans gathered 97,186 strong Saturday to honor the memory of Joe Paterno and watch the Nittany Lions play their first football game under his successor, Bill O'Brien.

It has been a tumultuous 10 months since Paterno was fired -- after 46 years as head coach -- before the final home game in November amid allegations he knew about Jerry Sandusky's criminal behavior in a sex-abuse scandal that rocked the nation.

In July, Penn State officials removed the statue of Paterno from outside Beaver Stadium amid an outcry from his supporters. Penn State fans with deep feelings about the football program but sadness over Paterno's role have been less vocal.

Paterno died of lung cancer in January.

Emotions that have been roiling for months reached a crescendo when O'Brien, a former New England Patriots assistant coach, led the Nittany Lions onto the field only to end in a heartbreaking 24-14 upset loss to Ohio University. Describing the moment in the tunnel before the game, O'Brien said, "I have a special bond with these players, and I was excited to lead them out onto the field. I just wish that I did a better job during the game."

Once the ball was kicked off, O'Brien said, it was a normal game. "Other than the fact it was my first game, I didn't sense anything different about today's game," he said.

But the difference was profound for fans seeing names on Penn State's plain blue-and-white uniforms for the first time and a new leader in place of Paterno, who first walked the sidelines here in 1950 as an assistant. There was no official recognition of the late Paterno during the game, but Paterno's wife, Sue, and daughter, Mary Kay, watched from the family's suite.

Sue Paterno posted a sign on the front door of her home in support of the football program even though her husband's legacy has been damaged as the result of a university investigation led by former FBI director Louis Freeh. His report said emails suggest Paterno was part of a decision to cover up allegations against Sandusky, who was convicted in June on 45 counts of child sexual abuse.

The Freeh report was the basis for NCAA sanctions, including a four-year bowl ban, a four-year limit of 65 scholarships starting in 2014, an unprecedented $60 million fine and the forfeiture of the last 111 of Paterno's record 409 wins.

But it's clear that many of the Penn State faithful question the conclusions of the Freeh report.

Hundreds gathered at the site outside the stadium where Paterno's statue was removed and a wall with plaques honoring each of his teams was torn down and replaced by a grass-covered berm. Their anger toward the board of trustees and school administration was palpable.

"I have just the phrase for them: 'Shame on you,' " said Cindy Johnson, who traveled some 175 miles from Bethlehem, Pa., to honor Paterno's memory with a sign expressing her belief that the coach is in heaven. "They crucified Joe absolutely. But he's in our hearts. There are boys whose lives were turned around because of what Joe did for them, and I won't let that go."

What troubles some Penn Staters the most is that all the good they say that Paterno did has been overshadowed by Sandusky's wrongdoing. Removal of the Paterno statue was the final insult, they said.

"Why did they take the statue down?" sophomore Adam Kowalski asked. "It's excessive. Joe Paterno has a library here. Put the statue in there."

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