The Penn State University football motto is “Success With Honor,” and no coach seemed to live up to that credo more than Joe Paterno, the Nittany Lion leader for more than 45 years. Paterno, known simply as “JoePa” in a place in central Pennsylvania known as Happy Valley, won 409 games in his career — a Division 1 record — and two national championships. His players usually graduate, no small feat in major college athletics. “Coaches have the same obligations as all teachers,” Paterno, 84, wrote in Paterno By The Book, his 1989 autobiography. “Except that we may have more moral and life-shaping influence over our players than anyone else outside of their families.”
Moral influence: before this week no one seemed to wield it better than Paterno. We now know that no one fumbled it worse. Because of his failure to report a child sex abuse case directly to authorities, Paterno has lost his job and his reputation as a role model. On Wednesday night, the university’s Board of Trustees fired Paterno and university president Graham Spanier. Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley will take over as interim head coach. “Right now, I’m not the football coach, and that’s something I have to get used to,” Paterno told students gathered at his house, according to The Associated Press. Earlier in the day, Paterno released a statement in which he called the situation a “one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”
On Nov. 5, the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office accused Jerry Sandusky, 67, a defensive coach at Penn State for 33 years who retired after the 1999 season, with 40 counts related to the sexual abuse of eight minors. Two Penn State administrators — athletic director Tim Curley and senior vice president for finance and business Gary Schultz — face criminal charges for allegedly lying about their knowledge of Sandusky’s behavior, and failing to report it to authorities, as required by Pennsylvania law. (Sandusky, Curley, and Schultz all deny the charges).
According to grand jury testimony, in 2002 a graduate assistant, later identified as current Penn State wide receivers coach Mike McQueary, witnessed Sandusky raping a 10-year-old boy in the showers of the Penn State football facility. Paterno testified that McQueary told him about the nature of the incident, but left out the graphic details. By informing Curley, his superior, about the episode, Paterno met his legal obligation.
But what about that moral influence? College football coaches at big state-run institutions have more clout than many governors. Paterno, the biggest man on campus, chose to punt this problem to a PSU bureaucrat.
For a coach like Paterno to be oblivious to anything beyond football isn’t unusual. Like so many political leaders, big time college coaches cocoon themselves in power, and hold on to it at all costs. That’s the price we’ve paid for college sports. University athletic departments have become unwieldy, multi-million dollar businesses — and organizations upon which a school’s entire fundraising, prestige and psyche can depend.
At best, this power cocoon may have clouded JoePa’s judgment; he has been under pressure to win or retire for several years. Spanier and other administrators were not — and they now face searing criticism. School officials, apparently fearing for the reputation of their sacrosanct football program, tried to investigate Sandusky themselves. At best, they botched it; at worst, they covered it all up.
When evaluating Penn State’s leadership, from coach to president, Sandusky’s guilt or innocence is not the point. A trusted assistant offered a sickening eyewitness account. The mere risk that Sandusky could abuse again demanded a call to the police — from Paterno, the administrators, anybody.
In his book, Paterno talked about the importance, for his players, of embracing campus life. “The hero whose picture you see most often may also have the least emotional experience,” Paterno wrote, “is probably uncertain about who he is, and who he’s supposed to be. Inside, he’s tender and fragile.” Just like those boys who Sandusky may have abused. Coach Paterno, why forget about them?