Joe Paterno – his long and winding road
The last few months have not been kind to 84-year old Hall of Fame college football coach Joe Paterno. Fired after serving as Penn State’s head football coach on November 9, a frail Paterno was hospitalized Friday. Days after his firing, Paterno was diagnosed with treatable form of lung cancer. In December, Paterno was admitted to a hospital after fracturing his pelvis when he slipped and fell at his home. On Sunday, The Washington Post published the first interview Paterno granted since his firing, an interview that made it clear – while Paterno may have won football games – he was out of touch with reality.
The picture Washington Post writer Sally Jenkins painted of Paterno was not pretty. Paterno spoke to Jenkins while seated in a wheelchair, his body “wracked by radiation and chemotherapy.” The now soft- spoken Paterno wears a black wig to replace the hair he’s lost through chemotherapy.
On Saturday, October 29, Penn State beat Illinois 10-7 giving Paterno his 409th win, surpassing Eddie Robinson's record for most wins by a college football coach. “JoePa” (as he was affectionately called) was presented with a plaque by then Penn State President Graham Spanier and at the time Penn State’s Atheltic Director Tim Curley. The plaque read "Joe Paterno. Educator of Men. Winningest Coach. Division One Football." Six short days later, life changed forever for Paterno, Spanier, Curley and many more when former Penn State Assistant Football Coach Jerry Sandusky was indicted on more than 50 charges related to alleged child sex abuse, including an incident that took place in Penn State football locker room in 2002 (and in 1998).
Sandusky’s arraignment created an international firestorm in the days and weeks that followed resulting in Paterno’s , Spanier’s and Curley’s firing. While the anger directed at Penn State has subsided, the issue when the story was first reported remains – Why did Penn State and the school’s athletic department seemingly cover-up allegations Sandusky had raped young boys in the Penn State football locker room first in 1998 and again in 2002?
Pennsylvania Attorney General has made it clear when the indictments were announced on November 4; legally Joe Paterno had followed the law in dealing with what he was first told my then graduate football assistant coach Mike McQueary on a Saturday morning in 2002. Paterno told Jenkins he had “no inkling” that Sandusky might be a sexual deviant.
While Paterno and Sandusky had worked together for more than 30 years, the two men were not friends socially and their relationship was professional in nature, according to Paterno. By 2002, the two men had little, if any, contact.
Sandusky left Paterno’s coaching staff after the Lions 1999 season. Paterno and Sandusky met shortly after the Lions beat Texas A&M, 24-0, on December 28, 1999 in the Alamo Bowl. Paterno told Sandusky he wouldn’t be offered the chance to replace him when he retired. Paterno’s reasoning begins to paint an interesting picture.
“He (Sandusky) came to see me and we talked a little about his career,” Paterno told The Washington Post. “I said, you know, Jerry, you want to be head coach, you can’t do as much as you’re doing with the other operation. I said this job takes so much detail, and for you to think you can go off and get involved in fundraising and a lot of things like that. . . . I said you can’t do both, that’s basically what I told him.”
The other operation Paterno alluded to was Second Mile, the organization Sandusky allegedly used to lure young boys and rape them. Paterno had no understanding (as did everyone else) that Sandusky had created an organization to benefit his alleged sick perversions.
The 2002 incident in the Penn State football locker room resulted in Paterno losing his job. Paterno told Jenkins how he remembers the Saturday morning Mike McQueary his then graduate assistant visited his home: “He was very upset and I said why, and he was very reluctant to get into it,” Paterno told The Washington Post. “He told me what he saw, and I said, what? He said it, well, looked like inappropriate, or fondling, I’m not quite sure exactly how he put it. I said you did what you had to do. It’s my job now to figure out what we want to do. So I sat around. It was a Saturday. Waited till Sunday because I wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing. And then I called my superiors and I said: ‘Hey, we got a problem, I think. Would you guys look into it?’ Cause I didn’t know, you know. We never had, until that point, 58 years I think, I had never had to deal with something like that. And I didn’t feel adequate.”
Graham Spanier was Penn State’s President, Tim Curley the athletic director and Gary Schultz one of the school’s vice president (who oversaw university police) in 2002.
Joe Paterno’s football program was generating $50 million in revenues for Penn State University in 2002, making Paterno the most powerful man at Penn State. It’s fine for Paterno to tell Jenkins what he remembers doing back in 2002, but Paterno had the power to make sure Jerry Sandusky was dealt with when McQueary met with him. Suggesting to his superiors that “we got a problem, I think. Would you guys look into it?’” is as unacceptable today as it was when Mike McQueary first told Paterno about the horrific scene had he witnessed.
Paterno has three sons, two daughters and 17 grandchildren. As unimaginable a scene as Mike McQueary had painted for Paterno, he had to know what happened was wrong and he had to take charge. He had to know what he was being told would forever taint Penn State football, Penn State University and as the de facto leader of the Penn State community, Paterno had to know what to do.
Yet as Paterno told Jenkins, he didn’t know what to do when his graduate assistant told him about Jerry Sandusky sexually assaulting a ten-year old boy in Penn State’s locker room.
“I didn’t know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was,” he said. “So I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did. It didn’t work out that way.”
The plaque Joe Paterno was presented on October 29, referred to Paterno as an “Educator of Men.” While not written, it is implicit that an educator of men is a leader of men. During what will have been the greatest challenge of his legendary career, Paterno needed to take action and take control. He had to do what was right. Instead, he appeared lost and confused, sad and old. Old enough to run after an official in 2002, but too old to understand what needed to be done, too old to be the leader his followers believed he was.
“I didn’t know which way to go,” Paterno said. “And rather than get in there and make a mistake . . .”
Paterno has said repeatedly, “In hindsight, I wish I had done more.” Too late Joe, because you didn’t take charge, because you didn’t do more, you failed the toughest challenge of your life.
For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom