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Paterno, Penn State face unusual storm

The program is fighting to maintain its clean image in the face of Rashard Casey's arrest.

By SHARON GINN

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 26, 2000


Here's a sign things aren't so carefree in Happy Valley: Penn State coach Joe Paterno is seven wins from eclipsing Bear Bryant's Division I-A record of 323 career victories, but all anyone can talk about is why he hasn't benched his starting quarterback.

Paterno has vowed to stand behind senior Rashard Casey, who was charged in May with felony aggravated assault after an altercation involving an off-duty police officer. Though the matter hasn't been resolved, Casey will start Sunday's Kickoff Classic against No. 15 Southern California.

The decision to start Casey has given even longtime Paterno devotees pause. Cynics and fans of rival schools say Paterno is sticking with Casey because he has no one else with significant experience to lead the No. 22 Nittany Lions. Casey, who split time with senior Kevin Thompson last season, was MVP of the Alamo Bowl after leading Penn State to a 24-0 victory over Texas A&M. Had he made the required number of attempts last season, Casey's quarterback rating of 153.94 would have been fourth in the nation in I-A.

Paterno said his reason for playing Casey is simple: For now, the allegations against him aren't enough to warrant suspension or expulsion from the team. He plans to stick with Casey "until something convinces me I shouldn't."

"(It's) what you said -- allegations," Paterno said. "You don't expect me to do anything just because something's alleged."

Whatever happened early on May 14, it landed off-duty police officer Patrick Fitzsimmons in the hospital. Casey and friend Desmond Miller have pleaded innocent to second-degree assault.

No one disputes that Casey, Miller and a friend encountered Fitzsimmons and a female companion outside a bar in Casey's hometown of Hoboken, N.J. But accounts of what happened -- published and rumored -- vary widely.

Shortly after the arrests, Hoboken Police Chief Carmen LaBruno was quoted as saying Casey and Miller "took exception to the fact that the officer was white and he was with a black woman." Fitzsimmons' attorney says his client was "cold-cocked" by Casey and punched by Miller, then kicked by all three men. Fitzsimmons has filed a civil lawsuit against the three, seeking unspecified damages.

Casey's attorney, while acknowledging Fitzsimmons' injuries, says race was not a factor and that Casey "never kicked him, never punched him. I'm convinced of that."

Apparently, so is Paterno, who plans to take no action until either the court system or PSU's judicial affairs office does. That could take months. Unlike many schools -- including Florida State, which faced criticism for allowing Peter Warrick to play last season after his felony grand theft charge was reduced to a misdemeanor -- Penn State does not have a rule barring athletes charged with a felony from participating.

Casey has not commented publicly on what happened but said at the team's media day this month that he appreciates Paterno's confidence in him. "I don't think I have anything to hang my head over," he said. "If I could talk, I'd talk."

For now, he'll just play. Casey is considered so necessary to Penn State's success that Paterno was moved at one point to say Casey was the only player guaranteed a starting job. On a team that needs leadership, "Rashard Casey has been an excellent leader, on the field (and) off the field," Paterno said Tuesday without a hint of irony.

Casey's situation isn't the only question mark. The offensive line has been weakened by injury. The defense is young and inexperienced. Paterno considers the kicking game suspect. And the schedule is difficult. Five Big Ten opponents are ranked in the preseason top 25.

Team morale also is a question and not just because of the controversy surrounding Casey. Penn State opened last season with nine victories then collapsed, losing three straight before regrouping for the Alamo Bowl.

Yet spirits are as high as ever, fullback Mike Cerimele said.

"We've busted our tails since then," Cerimele said. "I don't think I've been around a team that's worked harder, that's been pushed any harder. I think we're in the best shape we've ever been in."

- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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