When I was a kid, Penn State football Head Coach Joe Paterno visited our living rooms Monday nights in the fall with his own television show on the local PBS affiliate in Hershey. Football and PSU were pretty big parts of our young lives back in the late 1960s and early ’70s, and this was must-see TV.
Coach Paterno — wearing a white shirt and black tie and sporting those trademark Coke bottle-thick glasses — would analyze film of the game, pointing out how one guy or another missed a block, or how another guy followed his block. He infused these lessons in fundamentals with little asides about some of the values and principles that the game was supposed to represent — things like sacrifice, teamwork, loyalty, winning with grace, losing with dignity and doing the right thing at all times.
In our young, impressionable eyes, this man was a football god.
When Joe’s own sterling, six-decade coaching career came crashing down around him two months ago, at about the same time he was diagnosed with lung cancer at age 85, I was reminded of my own dad, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. Both men, because of health problems and advanced age, were simply unable sometimes to understand what was going on around them, or so it seemed to me watching Paterno age on TV over the years. In recent times, the sainted coach sometimes seemed too befuddled to even function on the sidelines. As Harrisburg Patriot-News columnist David Jones put it in his excellent August 2010 story about the legendary coach, “Paterno sounded very much like something he never was — an old man,” Jones wrote of Paterno’s presentation at a press conference in Chicago that summer.
Come last November, with Paterno and everyone in the football program potentially implicated in the scandal created after child molestation charges were brought against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, Penn State trustees believed it was best that Joe just leave, instead of retiring at the end of the season as he had planned.
In the minds of board members, however, Joe’s continued involvement with the football program was untenable, and the week before the season’s last home game against Nebraska, PSU trustees unceremoniously canned the coach, not in person, but by phone. By this time, Joe’s limited but critical role in the scandal had been revealed — that in 2002, he knew about an incident of sexual impropriety between Sandusky and a boy enrolled in Sandusky’s nonprofit group, the Second Mile, and that he’d reported it to school officials but not to police.
After that revelation came to light in testimony given by Paterno to a grand jury investigating the Sandusky case, the legendary coach’s participation in a program that he personally built — 46 of 61 years as head coach with 409 wins, two national titles, 24 wins out of 37 bowl appearances and two appearances in the Rose Bowl — was no longer wanted.
Unfortunately, even with Coach Paterno’s death on Sunday due to complications related to lung cancer, questions — like what more Joe knew, when he knew it and what he and other coaches did about it — remain. Meanwhile, Sandusky, who started at PSU in 1969 and helped Joe win both of those national titles, one in 1982 and the other in 1986, remains free on bail, girding for what promises to be a lengthy, emotionally grueling and potentially embarrassing trial.
Watching the Nebraska game on TV, Beaver Stadium was packed beyond capacity, sending much love to the beleaguered coach, who did not attend, but also unstated messages to prosecutors in the Sandusky affair. Yes, these were merely fans, but many at that game could also be viewed as potential jurors or family members of jurors. And on this day, just by their presence at Beaver Stadium, these people actually “voted” in a peculiar but powerful way, not in support of Sandusky, but to preserve both football and the legacy of beloved Joe Pa.
People were on their knees outside of Joe’s house the morning of the game against Nebraska. Were they praying for him or for the victims of his longtime defensive coordinator? Maybe people were praying for the future of football itself at Penn State. If it was to win the game, apparently no one was listening, as the Cornhuskers pulled out a 17 to 14 win later that day.
It appears some of those prayers may actually have been heard, though, at least for those hoping the mess made by Sandusky and others would just go away, because a response to this calamity by the NCAA, which governs collegiate sports, and the state, which funds the school, has been conspicuously missing thus far. In fact, to the consternation of many who consider Paterno a part of an alleged criminal cover up, Pennsylvania’s Republican governor, Tom Corbett, last week ordered all flags flown at half-staff to honor Paterno’s memory.
Personally, like my dad and brothers, I loved Joe Pa. How could you not? That such a spectacular career of service, dedication and sacrifice could be laid to waste by one blunder, albeit a colossal one, gives all of us reason to pause in our own life’s dealings. But let’s also remember that Joe is hardly a hero here, for the first time in his life and at the end of his life, and that’s another terribly sad part of all this in the eyes of people who believed in all the noble things that football under Joe Paterno was supposed to represent.
In this case, Joe did not do the right thing for the right reasons and then make the ultimate sacrifice by falling on his sword and resigning. It appears Joe actually did wrong things, perhaps running interference for the wrong people out of misplaced loyalties, and was permanently benched for failing to comply with a formal order to retire.
In the end, Joe was stripped of all his deific adornments and returned to his original status as a human being — a man who, like all men, made mistakes.
In a statement given prior to his firing, Paterno told NPR all that was happening as a result of the crimes allegedly committed by Sandusky and his not doing more about it “is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”
As do we all, coach.