Shadow of JoePa hangs darkly over Penn State University
Sacking of Joe Paterno, the 'winningest' coach in US college history continues to generate controversy
Before the fall: Joe Paterno watches as his Penn State Nittany Lions team play Northwestern Wildcats at Ryan Field in Evanston, Illinois in 2009, three years before his sacking over allegations he helped cover up child sexual abuse allegations against his assistant coach. Photograph: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
A charter plane arrived in Dublin yesterday carrying 118 Penn State University gridiron players, just under 200 support staff, and one very troubled ghost. See, wherever this team goes these days, they are always accompanied by the spectre of Joe Paterno.
His body may have been interred in a Pennsylvania cemetery back in 2012 but the controversial circumstances of his departure as head coach of the Nittany Lions shortly before that continue to haunt the college he bestrode for 46 seasons. His is a legacy that cannot rest in peace.
Amid revelations that for nine years Paterno knew about and failed to report allegations that Jerry Sandusky, a long-time assistant-coach, abused boys, the Penn State trustees fired the most “winningest” coach in college football history.
Thousands of students responded by rioting and demanding Paterno be re-instated. “We are Penn State,” they chanted, as if at a pre-match pep rally, “We are Penn State!”
The myopic affection towards him then explains why, even after Paterno’s subsequent death from cancer, Sandusky getting decades in jail for multiple crimes against children, and the university being carpeted for its failure to act earlier, the fall-out continues to reverberate around a campus ironically nicknamed Happy Valley.
Amid a miasma of lawsuits and pending prosecutions, and following two investigations (one conducted by Louis Freeh, former head of the FBI, the other competing narrative commissioned by the Paterno family), it has returned to the national conversation over the past few weeks.
“I am not writing to exonerate my father because he did not commit a crime that needs a pardon,” writes Jay Paterno, in Paterno Legacy: Enduring Lessons from the Life and Death of my Father, his new book in which, well, he tries to exonerate his father.
The outsized coverage afforded the book re-affirmed just how much of an icon Paterno used to be. It wasn’t just that he was a good coach, it was the way he’d grown old gracefully in the job which endeared him to people with little interest in Penn State.
Well into his eighties and still on the sidelines, he looked like everybody’s grandfather. He behaved a lot like one too, including famously getting caught short and having to run to the locker room toilets during a game.
Alternately cranky and genial, he appeared to care deeply about the welfare of his players and the good of the university, especially rare qualities in the Machiavellian collegiate sports world.
All of the above explains why there is still so much bitter debate about his conduct when it came to Sandusky. His son and others (including those behind the forthcoming documentary The Framing of Joe Paterno) claim the coach was a victim of injustice.
Much of their case centres on the grand jury testimony of Mike McQueary, another former Penn State assistant-coach. That, in 2002, McQueary told Paterno about seeing Sandusky behaving inappropriately in a shower with a 10-year-old boy is accepted but there is some question about whether he conveyed the nature of what he witnessed in enough detail.
Of course, most sane people would say any account of a middle-aged man showering with a 10-year-old boy in a college lockerroom at night is detail enough to prompt swift and decisive action.
Paterno’s supporters contend he fulfilled his legal obligation by passing the story along to his superiors and it was Penn State president Graham Spanier, former athletic director Tim Curley and former vice president Gary Schult who didn’t report the allegation to police. All three may yet do jail for not doing so.
Paterno’s chain of command defence founders on one salient fact. He was the most revered and most feared man around the town of State College, “a secular pope” as one writer put it.
What Joe said went. Far more powerful than the president or the athletic director, he had his own statue on campus and 107,000 fans shoehorned into Beaver Stadium to pay him homage every second Saturday during the season. If he’d have wanted Sandusky or anybody else reported for anything, they would have been.
The failure to involve the outside authorities in 2002 is compounded by the subsequent allegation that Paterno knew about Sandusky’s predilections as far back as 1998. Yet, even after Sandusky retired from coaching the following year, Paterno afforded him continued access to Penn State facilities, a glamorous perk the abuser deployed as a lure to attract young boys whom he then molested.
“In hindsight, I wish I had done more,” said Paterno just before he was fired.
After the Freeh report concluded Paterno didn’t act out of a desire to protect the good name of Penn State, the university removed his statue from outside the stadium.
Under the circumstances, the right thing to do. Almost immediately however, a group of alumni came together to fund a replacement sculpture they plan to install off-campus next year. Still trying to burnish the legend of the coach they knew and loved as JoePa. The rest of us may see it is irrevocably tarnished but they remain Penn State.