- Associated Press - Saturday, September 1, 2012

STATE COLLEGE, PA. (AP) - As fans gather around Beaver Stadium in anticipation of Saturday’s long-awaited season opener, the overall mood around Penn State football is that of pride, perseverance and support _ for both the current and former coach.

Hours before the official beginning of the Bill O’Brien era, tailgaters are tossing footballs through the parking lots, setting up their cooking stations and readying themselves for the new Nittany Lions’ debut against Ohio at noon. Many are wearing “We Bill-ieve” shirts, endorsing Penn State’s new leader, O’Brien, who is the former offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots, and who has the been a steadying force within the program for nine months.

When the team arrived at the stadium, O’Brien was the first person to deboard off bus No. 1, followed by his game captains Derek Day, Jordan Hill, Gerald Hodges and Matt McGloin.

Boisterous fans waited for hours by the tunnel entrance waiting for the team busses. They chanted “Joe Pa-ter-no!” before turning their cheers toward O’Brien. There were thunderous cheers for the players as they exited the bus. The fans showed they stood by the players that stuck with the program.


Though the statue of Hall of Famer Joe Paterno _ O’Brien’s predecessor _ was removed July 22, the day before the NCAA announced the sanctions for the Jerry Sandusky scandal, many fans still hold Paterno in high regard and are unafraid to show it. One tailgater, in fact, has a 16-foot, homemade banner that reads “409 wins with honor,” referring to Paterno’s victory total. Other fans are wearing shirts that read “We Are … Still Proud.”

Where the statue used to stand, a fan placed a Paterno bobblehead between the trees. Others are stopping to snap pictures with cellphones and cameras.

Dressed in Penn State jerseys, Cindy and Mark Wascavage of Washington, N.J., paused to remember the man they say will always be the face of Penn State football.

“It makes you wanna cry,” Cindy, 54, said as she saw the bobblehead.

The couple has held season tickets for the past nine years and has always admired the former coach, even through these difficult times.

“He was the whole football program,” Cindy said, while Mark believes on this proud day, all of Penn State will stand united.

Chris Bartnik, of Chantilly, Va., created a life-size cutout of the former coach to honor him, and carried it with him through the lots. He stopped by the former statue holding place, but did not keep the cutout there out of fear it would be removed by university personnel.

“I don’t think it’s fair,” he said, “to pretend Joe Paterno never existed.”

At Paterno’s gravesite, fresh flowers were added to the fading collection of notes and memorabilia by Rob Elchynski, 44, who stopped by with his wife and friends before the game.

“I think it’s critical to the moving-on that they talk about, that they start playing football again,” Elchynski said, walking back to his car after saying a short prayer at the graveside.

The students, alumni and fans outside the stadium were nearly unanimous in their stance that Paterno got a raw deal and the university should have dug in and fought back against the NCAA sanctions. They’ve united behind the program following strict NCAA sanctions including a four-year bowl ban.

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