The Downfall of "JoePa"
We knew him as "JoePa"--yeah, the ultimate father-figure. Heck, "paterno" in Italian means paternal or fatherly, doesn't it? Most of us knew him as THE protector of integrity in a "break the rules 'til you get caught" college atmosphere gone haywire. He did things the right way, the Paterno way, yes--HIS way. And he did it all in a place called Happy Valley. Should have been a happy ending, right?
Joe Paterno died on January 22nd of complications from lung cancer; Penn State alum Matt Millen categorized it as more of a "broken heart" that took the life of the man who won more major college football games (409) than any other coach. In the end, his reputation as a "protector" was his downfall as he failed to alert authorities regarding the actions of a bum named Sandusky--his former defensive coordinator--now charged with terrible sex crimes against young boys. You see, LOYALTY was always #1 with "JoePa". Think about it: 62 years at one school, a devoted family man, and one who refused the riches of professional football in order to put (and KEEP) State College, PA on the map. His main legacy? He taught his players more about LIFE than about the game of football. In essence, he WAS Penn State--a man who continued to reside in the modest ranch home just blocks away from the stadium where his teams would benefit from his unmatched tutelage. "I wish I had done more" would be one of his last public statements. Yes, he died an embarrassed man--his inner conscience/mental anguish, no doubt, hastening his death at the age of 85.
"He was a simple man," said my Monday Night Sports Talk co-host Tony DeAngelo. "He believed in his program, he believed in his school, he believed in God, and he loved his kids. His innocence was largely rooted in his ignorance of indiscretions, and that's a sad thing. But there's no doubt that he was loyal to his program. Unfortunately, his simple nature--along with an IMMENSE love of his community--provided his undoing." Yes, it seems as if Joe liked to keep things simple--VERY simple. He dressed conservatively and his teams' uniforms were unflattering; yeah, no names on the backs of THIS school's jerseys--solely due to the wishes of a man who stressed the team concept like few others. Again, SIMPLE was Joe's way: play hard but study JUST as hard. And it worked: he coached 47 academic All-Americans, went to an astounding 37 Bowl games, and sent more than 250 (not a misprint, folks) players to the NFL. He was, quite possibly, the greatest football coach to ever walk on a gridiron--at ANY level. Simply put, the Paterno way would be impossible to duplicate.
What brought this legend down? Ah, there is no easy, cut-and-dried answer to that--but I'll say that it starts with trust, gets painted with loyalty, involves disgust, and ends with uncomfortable apathy. Here's the 'quick version' of how yours truly believes the scandalous situation may have unfolded at PSU: Graduate assistant Mike McQueary sees former coach Jerry Sandusky "involved" with a young boy in a shower in 2002--HAS to tell Paterno. Joe can't fathom such a despicable act--especially on the part of "one of his own"; he then tells administrators--fulfilling his legal obligation AND satisfying his conscience at the same time--and assumes they will take care of the rest. For some reason, PSU "suits" do NOTHING--most likely due to negative attention that would be brought to an otherwise honorable, "squeaky clean" program. The cover-up consists of saying nothing to NO ONE; the incident will simply go away on its own--just disappear. As time passes, Paterno--although still bothered and reeling in disgust from McQueary's claims--takes a hint from administrators and decides to remain quiet in order to keep PSU's reputation intact (which would cement his ultimate downfall). Too much time goes by; the situation snowballs as further Sandusky accusations arise. "JoePa" gets caught up (and wrongly so) in the "if not sure what to do, do NOTHING" trap. He proceeds to wrestle often with the fact that things like this just DON'T happen at PSU, but his tunnel vision allows him to carry on and concentrate on current players and the job at hand. The story breaks in early November, 2011; yeah, it's no longer "Happy Valley," football fans.
No excuses for "JoPa" here--NONE. He was at fault in MONSTROUS fashion for not contacting police when the idiotic "higher-ups" were dragging their feet; he went to his grave knowing that--and regretted it. If proactive, he could have possibly prevented further alleged Sandusky-related incidents; we'll find out more in the future. The biggest culprits in this wrongly-worded "Paterno scandal?" Graham Spanier, Tim Curley, and Gary Schultz--Joe's superiors who chose NOT to call police IMMEDIATELY after being notified by Paterno. Think about this for a moment, folks, as irony plays out BIG TIME here. Let's say these three individuals had acted responsibly--alerting cops back in 2002 about Sandusky. What happens THEN? Joe Paterno is LAUDED for his morals-based approach and zero tolerance policy--continuing to show that there's no room in Happy Valley for questionable character. Yes, the "Fatherly One," the protector, goes on teaching life lessons to young athletes and the legal system runs its course. No MAJOR scandal in State College--just one bad apple being weeded out as time assists the healing process. Yeah, a tad crazy, huh?
We'll never really be privy to ALL the facts of this heart-wrenching story as the months/years progress; tragedy just seems to work out that way. One thing IS for sure: There are no winners in the saga--JUST losers. The fact is that Coach Paterno DIDN'T do more; I concur with Mr. Millen that his heart WAS broken long before the cancer claimed him. Sadly, the phrase "Say it AIN'T so, Joe!" now takes on new meaning for many of us--and will continue to do so for a long time. Man, "JoePa" was one of the few left we could trust, right? He seemed to take on the role of a "distant Dad" to MANY of us who respected the Brooklyn kid who became a revered legend. Can one MAJOR mistake diminish/taint a lifetime filled with wondrous deeds--both on AND off the field? Perhaps--but to what degree? We can only hope that peace rules and victims HEAL as we move forward. But can we truly refer to it as "Happy Valley" from this day forward??
You'll be missed, "JoePa"; I just wish it could have ended SO differently.