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.