First, last and beyond everything else, it was the uniforms: blindingly ascetic white, with no names on the jerseys or insignia on the helmets.
When you saw Penn State on the football field, you saw team spirit and self-abnegation in action. You saw what coach Joe Paterno wanted you to see, which was his nameless players executing his grand design in religious obedience. The Penn State football team was a secular holy order, and because they looked so clean -- and because Paterno made sure they graduated -- he was seen as the pope of college football.
But it was a facade, and those who knew the story from the inside knew that. The program wasn't clean. Paterno wasn't clean. Penn State wasn't clean.
It was a masterpiece of relentless branding, built on a product that wasn't as advertised. It was a fake.
Now, let me note that several of my cousins attended the 45,000-student university. I've visited that mammoth facility that claims to be a leading university. And I know football legend Franco Harris, a smart, considerate, broad-minded guy, a credit to what is known as "The Pennsylvania State University." Franco played football there and then played for my hometown Pittsburgh Steelers, who are almost as dear to me as my family and my friends.
So I take no pleasure in saying that Penn State is a fraud, at least its top leaders certainly were. Louis Freeh's devastating report is an indictment not only of the university, but also of the idea that relentless commercial marketing is the key to success in academic administration or, for that matter, in life.
Before a relentless coach named Paterno arrived in 1950 by way of a football scholarship at Brown, Penn State was a nice enough but not very well-known ag-and-tech institution in State College, a small town in the heavily wooded middle of Pennsylvania. Other schools -- the University of Pennsylvania and Temple in Philadelphia, Pitt and Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, plus numerous fine liberal arts colleges across the state -- were the mainstays of higher education.
But as the state legislature began pouring money into higher ed, and as Paterno grew his football program along with the university, something else happened: Penn State became a nationally prominent institution. It rose to that fame based on one thing alone, football.
How the university leveraged football into something approximating intellectual prominence is one of the great stories of salesmanship.
But now it stands exposed.
Skeptics have been peeling back the Penn State onion for several years now. In 2008, ESPN calculated that in the previous six years, 46 Penn State football players had faced a total of 163 criminal charges; 27 had been convicted or had pleaded guilty. Why the wave of bad behavior? ESPN said it was because the aging Paterno had had an unprecedented four losing seasons in five years.
The narrative that Freeh lays out makes vivid sense if you see it against the background of a football empire that had come to rest on shaky ground by the late 1990s. Paterno could not afford scandal. The university could not afford scandal. To hell with the raped kids.
And just what did all this fame gain Penn State or the cause of higher education? The school clawed its way from obscurity to mediocrity in the national academic rankings. It convinced the Big Ten Conference, with prestigious schools such as Michigan and Northwestern, to admit Penn State.
But especially for a school of its size and budget -- it has the largest campus in the Northeast and the 10th largest in the country -- Penn State doesn't match its football team's prominence in very many of its myriad classrooms.
I took a look at the U.S. News & World Report rankings to see where the school stood. Its professional schools are barely mediocre: Business ranks 44th, law ranks 76th, medicine is so obscure that I couldn't find it on the published list. The school is in the top rank nationally in only a handful of disciplines: earth sciences, criminology, and industrial and nuclear engineering.
Penn State's other major strength, at least until now, was in several sub-specialties of education: administration and supervision, counseling and personnel, educational psychology, and higher education administration.
The sad irony of these rankings is unbearable.
According to Freeh, the top four officials at the university chose to protect Paterno's football program by allowing Jerry Sandusky, a one-time assistant coach, to rape, fondle and otherwise terrorize defenseless boys over the course of many years.
That, evidently, is "higher education administration," Penn State style.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article said incorrectly that Penn State clawed its way from obscurity to mediocrity in the national football rankings; it was the academic rankings.