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Is One Failing Enough to Undo All We “Knew” About Joe Paterno

January 23, 2012

I started a segment of my weekly radio show today talking with Larry Vaught (the one true journalist on the show) about why and how the “media” had gotten Saturday night’s inaccurate reports of Joe Paterno’s passing so horribly wrong. Halfway through the segment, I had to interrupt to announce that Paterno had in fact died on Sunday morning. I can’t quite describe how the reality of that announcement made me feel, other than sadness. And the truth is, I’m not sure exactly who I am sad for.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to think (hope even) that except in extreme cases, people shouldn’t be judged by the worst thing they’ve ever done. And I think that ends up being the difference between Joe Paterno and the former assistant whose scandal ended Paterno’s tenure as the head coach at Penn State. If former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky is guilty of the child molestation charges against him, he rightfully owns that designation forever. But what about Joe? Do we remember him for the decades of good he has done or for this one last memory of his tenure with the Nittany Lions?

I got into a heated argument with a good friend on the night Paterno was relieved of his duties as the head coach at Penn State (he was unconscionably let go over the phone). My friend couldn’t believe Paterno would be let go without any sort of hearing, due process, whatever. He kept asking about being innocent until proven guilty. The college football fan in me understood what he was asking. Unfortunately, the PR person in me knew that this was the only way. The 24-hour news cycle, the need to have something on the 24-hour sports and news channels – to “feed the tubes” as an old college professor of mine would say – left no alternative for Penn State. The only way for Penn State to move forward and to begin what will be a long process of separating itself from the Sandusky scandal was to move forward without JoePa. Was it fair? Probably not, but it was all that could be done.

So after 45 years of dedicated service to Penn State University – including turning down a $1 million-plus job in the NFL to stay in Happy Valley for $35,000 – Paterno is inextricably linked to one of the most horrific scandals in college sports history. And here’s my question. Is that fair? An amazing Washington Post interview with Paterno by Sally Jenkins just over a week ago raises more questions.

Paterno says in the interview that after assistant coach Mike McQueary told him that McQueary had seen Sandusky committing inappropriate acts in a Penn State football facility shower with a 10-year-old boy (the interview leaves in doubt just how detailed a description McQueary gave Paterno). Paterno says he reported the incident up the chain of command, saying that he had no idea how to proceed and that he thought the people he spoke to would have “more expertise” dealing with these matters.

Did Paterno do enough? Consensus is that he didn’t. I think he probably could have and should have done more. I do know that you have absolutely no idea how you would react in the same situation unless you have been in the same situation. Was Paterno protecting Sandusky? The Washington Post interview indicates that Paterno and Sandusky never had the kind of relationship that would lead Paterno to protect him.

So I am left with two big questions. The first is, more or less, was JoePa full of it when he gave that interview? And the answer is that I think he was being 100% honest. Paterno has never seemed to me to be a guy to mix words or dodge tough questions (maybe I’m wrong. I never sat in a room with the guy, but he seems pretty sincere on TV, and I honestly believe you can tell). So I am inclined to take him at his word.

The last, and biggest, question is, does one lapse – one failure, if you want to call it that – define 45 years as a head coach (and many more as an assistant) at Penn State. My answer – I hope it doesn’t. In his time at Penn State, Paterno coached well over 1,000 players. Those players won on the field and did well in the classroom. His graduation rates were consistently high. Many went on to impressive careers both in sports and in other fields. In addition to doing his job, Paterno and his wife, Sue, gave more than $4 million back to the University; had a library – not a sports venue – named in their honor.

It will be hard if not impossible for a while at least to separate how we feel about Joe Paterno from the scandal that ended a distinguished and likely never to be repeated career at Penn State. And somewhere down the line – I’m guessing 10 years or so – the books will begin pouring out, both pro-Joe and anti-Joe. At that point we will probably have a lot more information to inform us as to whether Joe was an enabler or a victim in the Jerry Sandusky mess. Until I have that information though, it’s hard for me not to give him the benefit of the doubt based on his years of admirable service to the University and to the sport.

So, finally, to answer my original questions as to who I feel sad for, I guess it’s a lot of people. I am sad for the victims of Jerry Sandusky. I am sad for the Penn State family and former players and for college football fans who still hold Joe in high esteem. But mostly I’m sad for a wife, children and grandchildren who have lost a man whom they clearly dearly loved.

RIP, Joe. I honestly hope time ends up being a friend to your legacy.

  1. Alyssa Canupp permalink

    I agree with you 100%.

  2. Rebecca L permalink

    It’s a shame that for “most of us” that he will be remembered as linked to that horrible scandal, but it shouldn’t overshadow his many, many years of brilliance at Penn, he has to go with this unfortunate mark on his name, to the grave, but it should in no way be what people remember him for.

  3. Todd Keirns permalink

    Incredibly well written and I agree with you whole heartedly.

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