STATE COLLEGE, PA. - A winding four-lane interstate cut through the jagged walls of the Alleghenies can only take you so far. At Exit 161, there's still 15 miles of rocky farmland before the pristine outline of Beaver Stadium peeks through the blue hills.
There, in the tiny insular community of State College, a massive scandal festered in silence for more than a decade. Once exposed, the scandal went far beyond Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State football assistant coach accused of sexually molesting 10 boys over 15 years.
The ripples from his actions knocked a legendary coach out of power and tarnished that regal stadium. The fingers of it coiled through this proud town, tarnishing the reputation of an entire athletic program. Even months after the initial news, a team not directly tied to the scandal -- Penn State's basketball squad, which plays host to the Gophers on Sunday -- feels the impact.
"In the outside world you hear it, and if you don't go to Penn State, that's the first thing that someone thinks about just because of now, with everything going on," said Tim Frazier, a junior guard for the Nittany Lions. "As far as the basketball team, we've just tried to look straight forward and not be a part of it and just kind of focus on ourselves."
But that's easier said than done. In Happy Valley -- where all the store fronts and bars bear reference to the university, the football team or its mascot -- everything is Penn State. And now, to the outside world looking in, Penn State is the scandal.
When Gophers basketball players arrived in State College, they likely saw no lasting remnants of the riots that flooded the streets after long-standing football coach Joe Paterno was fired. Outside the gates of Beaver Stadium, a bronze Paterno statue still stands without hints of the distress the town is still feeling.
"I've been trying to keep these guys together, fans have been very respectful," first-year Penn State basketball coach Patrick Chambers said. "We just have to focus on the great things about Penn State, the academics and the basketball program and what we can control. We can't control things that happened 16-20 years ago. But what we can control is what we do and how we approach it and try to support one another as well."
Penn State basketball is trying to create its own image this season. After beating Purdue by 20 at home and playing Indiana to the wire before losing, the Nittany Lions are making a case that they are better than everyone initially thought. And they are making a case for positive headlines.
But even without the visual clues around campus, it's hard to ignore the lingering damage.
President Rodney Erickson is still hosting discussion sessions that act as a venue for alumni to air questions and frustrations about the way the Penn State staff has handled the crisis. Stories on the aftermath still surface regularly. Sandusky, who remains out on bail, and on house arrest, is still entrenched in a lengthy legal battle. And even with the football season over, the topic still touches many conversations surrounding Nittany Lions athletics, no matter the sport.
"We see it a little bit in recruiting, because you have a scroll at the bottom of major news outlets," Chambers said. "Eventually, we're going to have to fight that perception, and people will bring it up."
A reputation earned through a tumultuous event is something hard to shake -- a reality with which the University of Minnesota is very familiar after its 1999 academic fraud scandal.
As a result, coach Clem Haskins was fired, the Gophers were forced to vacate their 1997 Final Four appearance and the record books for six full seasons were wiped out. Perhaps most damaging, though, was the blemish left on the face of the program, mottling the reputation for years. Even now, more than a decade later, it's brought up in Minnesota sports conversations.
"I understand where Minnesota is coming from," Chambers said. "There are challenges in everything you do when there is scandal."
In Stage College, at the epicenter, the greatest challenge is to keep something separate from the stain that has blanketed the blue hills and seeped out past the pristine outline of Beaver Stadium and down the windy interstate that cuts through the Alleghenies.
"It grieves me very much when I hear people say 'the Penn State scandal.' This is not Penn State. This is 'the Sandusky scandal,' " Erickson reportedly said at Thursday's meeting in King of Prussia, Pa. "We're not going to let what one individual did destroy the reputation of this university."