January 22nd was a sad day in America. A pitiful and depressing episode that confirms how a lawyer-controlled and weak-kneed society, ended with the tragic death of Joe Paterno. As sure as day turns into night, the actions taken last November by the Board of Trustees of Penn State University were responsible for the premature death of this great man.
I grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, next door to Paterno’s domain: Pennsylvania. My father graduated from Ohio State, and I was – and still am – a born-and-bred Buckeye fan. I clearly remember the emergence of Joe Pa at Penn State, which had not yet joined the Big Ten – that wouldn’t happen for another 25 years.
In that time we had the great Woody Hayes, but now we were butting heads with this scrawny- looking guy with goofy glasses who was somehow stealing a number of our recruits. Because he wasn’t in the Big Ten – and, of course, because Michigan was the center of everything evil in the world – I developed a mild liking for the guy. If the Buckeyes weren’t winning the national championship, then Penn State and Joe Pa seemed to be an acceptable alternative. It was certainly better than some others (like USC). Sure enough, it didn’t take him too long to produce undefeated seasons – reeling off three very quickly in 1968, 1969 and 1973 – but he had to wait until 1982 to win his first national championship.
Paterno went on to become a national icon. There have been many great college coaches with stellar, decades-long careers, but Joe Pa was beginning to set records. From the time he turned 70 – and then 80! – we all participated in the annual rite of speculation about whether he would or should retire.
Whenever I was asked about it, my answer was always the same: the Bear Bryant Syndrome. Joe knew very well that Bryant had passed away a little over a month after his retirement, and in fact had told sportscaster Brent Musburger that Bryant’s untimely death was one of the reasons he continued coaching. His team, school, and community – along with his wife of nearly 50 years – had become his life.
The Jerry Sandusky scandal shocked everyone; it always smacks your senses when someone is accused of such despicable acts. I read the transcript of the grand jury testimony with utter horror, and yet the fact that it engulfed the entire Penn State University made this sordid story even more appalling and disgraceful. Still, something seemed to be missing.
Mike McCreary, a young staffer for the football team, had walked into the locker room in the Penn State athletic complex while Sandusky, now a former employee, was sodomizing a young boy in the showers. McCreary claimed that he reported it to Paterno, who promptly informed his superiors, Athletic Director Tim Curley and Vice-President for Finance and Business Gary Schultz. When Curley and Schultz testified that they had heard a different story than what McCreary related to the grand jury, the two men were indicted despite no further verification by the grand jury and then summarily fired by the Board of Trustees. Then McCreary changed his story, telling the press something different than he told the grand jury. The Trustees still fired Paterno.
The most iconic person in Penn State history, an employee for over 60 years, was fired via telephone call. He was not given the chance to explain his side of the story. A group of weaklings who were more concerned with protecting their jobs and fending off lawsuits just started canning people. Even someone who has been with the University for one year deserves to have their side heard. Someone with 60 years of exemplary service merits a little extra consideration.
The villain in this story, Jerry Sandusky, was now lost in the shuffle and the focus of the sports world was on Paterno and the Trustees. Every sanctimonious sportscaster started whimpering about how they would have done more and how everyone involved should have done more. They, of course, were only thinking of the children.
When Joe Pa finally broke his silence, it was accompanied by yet a third version of McCreary’s story. Apparently, he never really told Paterno what actually happened in the shower. He justifiably couldn’t bring himself to tell a 76-year-old legend the ugly details. The fact that an aging Paterno wasn’t really able to comprehend the whole matter will not convince some of his lack of blame. Some people will insist that he should have been able to understand such despicable behavior, and they will never accept that some among us come from an era where such repulsive activities were utterly inconceivable. So Coach Paterno reported what he had heard from McCreary, and that was all he knew.
Some say Joe died of a broken heart. I say he died from a knife in the back. Does it shock me that the man is now dead? No – there is, after all, the Bear Bryant Syndrome.
There will always be those who maintain that Paterno should have done more. There are those who claim that if they were in the same situation, they would have done more. But the only thing anyone should really say is if they are ever in the shoes of the Trustees, that they would give everyone the decency and fairness of an honest hearing, that they wouldn’t jump to conclusions, and that they would never, ever try to cover their own butts by ruining the lives of others.