Contrary to what many people around these parts like to believe, Joe Paterno is a human. He is not a god. He is not an idol, even if you can buy a cardboard standup of him for your rec room.
The beloved JoePa is flesh and blood human. Puts on those black pants and white socks one leg at a time. Paterno has done a lot of wonderful things, and I don’t mean on the field. His support of Penn State, its library, all the other things you have heard over the years, all are evidence showing he is not the evil guy some have portrayed in recent days.
In a past life as a sportswriter, I had a chance to interact a little with the now-deposed Pope of Happy Valley. I wasn’t privy to those infamous hotel suite chats that you hear about from the guys who cover the Nittany Lions on the road. But I had enough in person contact to see him beyond the brief edited moments that appear on the evening sportscasts. My favorite personal Paterno anecdote is the story of how he literally took time out of a staff meeting to speak with me about legendary Danville, Pa. basketball coach Whitey McCloskey when I was writing Whitey’s obituary back in my days at the Danville News. I was struck that he didn’t tell his staff to take a message. That he not only took time out of a meeting, but never made it seem as if he was in a hurry to get off the phone. Having Paterno’s kind words about Whitey in that obit meant a lot to Whitey’s family, and really to the whole Danville community. Having him take that time to talk to me meant a lot to me. I think little moments such as that are far more telling about a person’s character than how many wins they get on a football field, or how much money they donate to charity. Just like the steroid scandal surrounding Roger Clemens will never erase my impressions of the Roger I knew when he was a minor league rookie in New Britain, Conn., this scandal will not erase the impression Paterno has made on me over the years. That said, I cannot fathom how anyone can excuse his handling of this whole sordid affair. People who say “but he told his superior, he followed the chain of command” are either ignorant of reality, or have not been paying attention for years. At Penn State, Joe Paterno had no superior. There may be people who are listed above him on some organizational flow chart, but nobody in Happy Valley, not even ex-university president Graham Spanier, wielded more power than Paterno. Even if they did, that is no excuse. According to court documents, Paterno was told Sandusky was buggering little boys. It happened in his team’s locker room. The guy who told him, at the time a grad assistant and now an assistant coach, was one of his former players, Mike McQueary. Given the relationship that had to exist for Paterno to bring McQueary on to his staff, it is tough to believe that McQueary didn’t give Joe details of what those documents say he witnessed.
Can you imagine anyone downplaying such horror when telling their trusted mentor? Can you honestly believe Paterno when he says he didn’t know the severity of what happened? Even if he really did think it was just a little touching, or whatever his exact recollection has been this week, does that make it any better? How can anyone excuse his failure to push the issue when athletic director Tim Curley did not? Keep in mind, the incident McQueary saw was not the first reported suspicion about Sandusky. Is it really likely Paterno had not heard about the previous reports? Do you really think people at Penn State would have kept him, of all people, out of the loop? The first official reports to police came in 1998. Mystery man DA Ray Gricar didn’t prosecute it. We may never know why. We do know in 1999, Sandusky retired. He was around 55 years old at the time. He was being mentioned repeatedly for major college head coaching jobs. Many thought he was Paterno’s heir apparent. It sure does not seem to be stretch to think maybe Sandusky was forced out, quietly, to avoid a scandal. But it does seem like a stretch to think police in State College were investigating Paterno’s top assistant and the coach knew nothing about it.
The timing of Sandusky’s departure is, at the very least, enough to arouse suspicion about what Paterno knew and when. Fast forward to 2002, when McQueary went to Paterno about what he saw. Ask yourself, is it believable that McQueary did not tell Paterno the details, or even if he did, that Curley did not relay them to Paterno, who in reality was Curley’s boss, after McQueary told him? Then ask yourself, if Joe knew (and face it, he had to), how could he stay quiet when Curley did nothing? Suppose you were Paterno. Suppose you knew someone was doing something so heinous. If you went to the authorities and they did nothing, could you let it go? Or would you go over their head, to the DA, to the state police, to the media if that is what it took to stop it. Yet Paterno did nothing. In fact, even though they told Sandusky he could not bring kids in the locker room anymore, he was still allowed to have an office there, still had keys to the building. Sandusky shifted some of his attention off campus. He served as a volunteer coach at an area high school. He ran a football camp at a Penn State branch campus. It is hard to believe Paterno did not know young boys were still being exposed to Sandusky, but again he did nothing. He did not call the high school and suggest Sandusky might not be the right guy to have around their program. He did not put the kibosh on Sandusky using the branch campus to run camps (and don’t for a minute think he didn’t have the power to do that). And he did not go to the police. On whole, yes, Paterno is a good man. But he made a mistake. A very, very big mistake. And he is paying dearly for that mistake. Not because he is no longer head coach of the Nittany Lions. That should have happened before, and not because of Sandusky. I don’t care who you are, when you are no longer physically capable of standing on the sidelines, you shouldn’t remain a head football coach. No, Paterno will pay for his mistake by having his reputation, his legend, his legacy, forever tarnished. Woody Hayes was a great football coach. But he punched a kid during a game and that is how he will always be remembered. If there is any justice in his world, John Calipari will be remembered for the two Final Four seasons his teams have been forced to vacate, not the almost 500 games he won. And Joe Paterno will, sad though it may be, be remembered as the coach who didn’t do the right thing, who didn’t do all in his power to protect young kids from a dangerous predator. If you can excuse that, if you can defend his actions, or inaction, frankly I think your priorities are pretty out of whack. There are things more important than winning football games. Those are the things people should be judged upon. This whole mess is so ugly someday people won’t even think about the Black Sox when they hear the phrase “Say it ain’t so, Joe.” Sorry Penn State fans and Paterno apologists. Sorry you misguided students who swarmed the streets in outrage over Paterno’s dismissal. Sorry to all of you who thought he was more than human and have had those illusions shattered.
You can shed all the Blue and White tears you want. If you ever want to proudly roar back “Penn State” when somebody yells “We Are”, Joe had to go.
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