The greatest college football coach of all-time. A man of class. The epitome of what a coach should be.
One week ago any of these statements would have been used by many in the description of Joe Paterno, the long standing Penn State coach who tonight was fired by the Board of Trustees at Penn State in the wake of a sex scandal that sent shock waves around the college football world and chills down the spine of observers everywhere. Paterno’s longtime friend and assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, the defensive coordinator on Penn State’s two national championship teams and a member of Paterno’s staff for 30 years was charged with 40 counts of sexual abuse on young boys dating back 15+ years. The most chilling aspect of this whole ordeal is there were signs all around and yet nobody seemed able to step up to the plate. Now decades after the fact, we’re finally getting an unsettling resolution.
Joe Paterno started as an assistant coach for Penn State in 1950 and has spent every season since then employed by the Nittany Lions, taking over the head coaching reigns in 1966. He is the all-time leader in FBS wins, bowl wins, a 3-time Big Ten coach of the year, and accolades upon accolades down the line. He built the Penn State program into a power and was considered the golden standard by which all head football coaches in the college ranks wished to be measured. The Penn State program never had come under major violations in his tenure and you hear and read the expression all the time that Happy Valley was “different” from other football programs around the country. He has had the never-ending admiration of all players past and present who seem to speak of him regularly as a father figure. Yet, on this night, none of that truly matters.
Whether we like it or not, Paterno’s lasting image will never be about the wins or titles or NFL players he produced. Much like one can never think of O.J. Simpson’s HOF NFL career without thinking about his murder trial, Joe Paterno’s career will forever be linked by the allegations of sexual misconduct by Sandusky. As time goes on and the likelihood of more and more victims coming out increases (as it already has), Paterno’s scrutiny will only grow. I genuinely feel for Joe Paterno. I think a lot of unknown facts are yet to be revealed and for that reason I have reserved casting a firm opinion on his role and responsibility in all that happened.
At this point in time, I know he was informed by at the time graduate assistant Mike McQueary of an incident in the school’s showers where Sandusky allegedly fondled a young boy. At this point in time, Paterno reported the incident to his superiors, athletic director Tim Curley and Vice President Gary Schultz about what he had heard. Beyond this, we don’t know what he knew. Given the vague description by McQueary and McQueary’s own lack of action, I have felt since the beginning that Joe Paterno’s critics have been overly harsh on him given the lack of evidence we have at our disposal. The fact is WE DON’T KNOW if Paterno knew anything else and WE DON’T KNOW what his mindset was after learning about this. I have never bought the notion that he turned a blind eye to sexual misconduct. There’s just nothing in his history or background that would lead me to believe he could help a young child in danger and instead let it go. He spent years and his own millions of dollars building not only the football program but the entire Penn State University school into what it is today. He bleeds for Penn State and I refuse to believe winning football games or protecting a friend would keep him from reporting something that could harm the very image and institution he helped make.
Nonetheless, questions will arise. How could he not know? Wasn’t it obvious something was wrong? Why didn’t he ask more questions? What was the extent of his knowledge? These are all fair questions that neither I nor the public has the evidence to answer right now. Hopefully in time we’ll be able to learn much more about the incidents that got us to this point and we’ll be able to use those facts to judge Joe Paterno and all involved in an indisputable light. If it comes out that he did know more then he let on and for whatever reason chose not to follow through, then shame on Joe Paterno and all criticism he’ll receive would be deserved. But at this time, I’m willing to give a man who by all accounts has had an impeccable record the benefit of the doubt.
I saw a tweet from someone on twitter tonight that summed this whole thing up best. “Fired or not, guilty or not, there are no winners tonight. Nothing about all of this is right or fair. This whole situation is one universal failure.” Penn State will try and move on and play football on Saturday afternoon in their senior’s last home game. Kids who spent the last 4 years looking up to Joe Paterno and listening to him coach and teach won’t see him in the locker room. He won’t be up in the booth or on the sideline. He won’t be there to greet them on the field. Those players lose out in this situation too. How they can get themselves up to play a meaningful football game for a potential chance to step closer to a spot in the conference championship, I don’t know. The victims and their families need no explanation for their loss in all of this. At a time when they needed help the most, nobody was there to protect them from a monster.
So Joe Paterno’s career in football is over. His career and reputation that was once never in question now sits with a black cloud over it. Some will continue to support him until he’s deceased and even after. Some will never look at him the same again. Regardless of what happens to his reputation, I really doubt it matters to him. The one thing he loved doing, coaching and teaching football is gone. He lost that opportunity because he and other individuals failed to recognize a problem. Whether he eventually is charged in this case remains to be seen. I’m sure he’ll face civil actions from the families and the victims. Ultimately though, Joe Paterno will have to live his remaining years knowing that if people had just asked more questions, if someone had maybe checked on Sandusky a little more, this could have been stopped. Joe Paterno will realize that the number of victims grew and grew in large part because he and others involved didn’t take that one extra action which could have caught a predator. That will weigh heavily on his heart I’m sure and be something he’ll never forget.
And the constant reminder of all this that he’ll have to live in conscience with I’m sure will destroy him more than any legal punishment or public outcry every could.