Penn State's hometown, a passenger in football team's success, may face its own tough time

  • Article by: MARC LEVY, MARK SCOLFORO and KEVIN BEGOS , Associated Press
  • Updated: July 24, 2012 - 2:37 AM

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Many in this leafy, vibrant college town nicknamed "Happy Valley" worry the temporary evisceration of Penn State's football program might inflict similar damage on a community that, for years, thrived as fans flocked to home games at the massive football stadium and a far-flung alumni base stayed connected by loyalty — and by checkbook.

Some business operators saw the same silver lining that many survivors do after a near-death accident: They had feared a complete shutdown of Penn State's football program by the NCAA.

Yet they also know Penn State, and the hotels, eateries and university-themed apparel shops that cluster around campus, face rough times ahead.

"Football is absolutely intertwined with the university, therefore the town," said graduate student Will Ethier. "Such hard hits really will hit the town economically, as well as a community. Penn State, Penn State football, State College, they're all absolutely intertwined. If one gets sanctioned, everybody else gets sanctioned. So it's really tough on everybody."

Penn State's powerhouse football program sustained an unprecedented blow on Monday as the university agreed to a $60 million fine, a four-year ban from postseason play and a cut in the number of football scholarships it can award — the price it will pay for having looked the other way while former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky brought boys onto campus and molested them.

The NCAA also erased 14 years of victories, wiping out 111 of coach Joe Paterno's wins and stripping him of his standing as the most successful coach in the history of big-time college football.

The school meekly accepted its punishment, pledging to hold itself to high standards of honesty and integrity.

Penn State spokesman David La Torre said university President Rodney Erickson had no choice but to acquiesce, given the threat of a total shutdown of the football program — the so-called death penalty.

Students, alumni and Penn State football fans expressed shock and outrage at the heavy NCAA penalties. And there were signs of discontent at the way the governing body arrived at them. The NCAA bypassed its usual slow-moving series of investigations and hearings and instead relied on the university-funded report of former FBI chief Louis Freeh, who found that Paterno and several top administrators stayed quiet about accusations against Sandusky in 1998 and 2001.

New Penn State trustee Anthony Lubrano said he was "deeply disappointed" in the sanctions and the fact that board members had no input.

"I have a fiduciary responsibility to Penn State and I feel like I wasn't included, just told we are agreeing to sanctions that will impact our university for years to come," Lubrano said. "I don't like that. I don't like the fact I wasn't involved in the process."

The four-year ban on postseason play and a 20 percent reduction on scholarships for the same amount of time are expected to lay the heaviest hand on the football program's ability to recruit high-quality players.

Some wondered whether that will translate into fewer fans in the bleachers.

Average attendance at the 106,500-seat Beaver Stadium has long been muscular. It ranked no lower than fourth nationally in average attendance each year since 1991, a university spokesman said. And Penn State's alumni association, with more than 165,000 members, is billed as the largest in the world.

State College, in rural central Pennsylvania's rolling dairy country, has 42,000 permanent residents, not counting about 45,000 graduate and undergraduate students. Already, the team has sold 85,000 season tickets for 2012.

But Chris Stathes, who has a daughter at Penn State and manages one of the two Waffle Shops in State College, said he would not be surprised to see 20,000 or 30,000 empty seats at Beaver Stadium, the nation's second-largest sports venue. He imagines casual fans tuning out or deciding not to make the drive to see home games in State College, several hours from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

If the team's football success drove the bus, then the businesses around it were undoubtedly passengers. Some fans make the home games a routine event, and lines of hungry stadium-goers typically go out the door at the Waffle Shops from the time they open at 5:30 a.m. until kickoff.

But now, "what are you going to watch for?" said Stathes, who watches games on TV at self-styled "Penn State Pigouts" with his friends. "They can't advance to any postseason bowl game or anything like that. People are still going to be disgusted over the whole thing. But I think it's great ... that they will be able to play, that there will be fans coming into town."

Added Stathes: "If it was a total ban, it would have devastated the community."

Another area that some analysts say is already hurting is apparel sales.

Matt Powell, an analyst with SportsOneSource, a Charlotte, N.C.-based provider of sports business information, said apparel sales are dropping, from about $80 million in 2010 to $60 million after the scandal broke last year to possibly $45 million this year.

At the Old State Clothing Co. a block from campus, Paterno is depicted prominently. One poster shows him on Mount "Rush More" with several defensive players. Assistant manager Jonathan Estable said the loyalty of alumni and students makes him doubt that the NCAA sanctions would have much effect on home-game attendance. However, he said it would not surprise him to see a dip in alumni giving or interest from football recruits.

George Arnold, the executive director of the Downtown State College Improvement District, said that some downtown businesses, particularly Penn State apparel retailers, have probably suffered from the scandal, and that certain events, such as the town's recent arts festival, may not have been attended quite as well as in other years.

But Arnold, a 1992 Penn State grad, insisted the local economy is much more diverse — including concerts, hiking, fishing and cuisine — than just football tourism.

"I've read some folks think all we're about is football, and that's not true," Arnold said.

Several Penn State fans, whether they buy tickets or watch on TV, insisted they would not lose interest in the team.

"We will go to every game," said Sam Zamrik, 80, a retired professor of engineering and a season ticket holder for 40 years. "They need our support."

___

Begos reported from Pittsburgh. Associated Press writer Michael Rubinkam and AP videographer Dan Huff also contributed to this report.

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