PHILADELPHIA — If the circumstances were not so horrific, the reports emanating from Penn State that university officials are working to “manage the exit” of football coach Joe Paterno would actually be funny.
University officials have been doing that for more than a decade, with little success. Penn State president Graham Spanier and athletic director Tim Curley mustered their courage and went to Paterno’s house in 2004 to discuss a retirement schedule and were essentially tossed onto the lawn.
The administration wanted to find a graceful way to end the Paterno era before the program that he built into a national powerhouse suffered from his unwillingness to step aside.
Well, they are a little late. The 84-year-old Paterno told potential recruits earlier this year that he planned to be around another “three or four seasons.”
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The fear, naturally, was that the football itself would actually suffer as Paterno’s ability to coach the team diminished. The administration certainly didn’t want the cash register to stop ringing and, to a large degree, didn’t want a career of exceptional accomplishment and legend to end badly.
No one outside the program could have imagined the revelations of the last few days and the degree to which Paterno’s reputation would be tarnished by incidents that happened within one of the very buildings his program constructed.
It is difficult to imagine how Paterno can continue to coach this season. University president Graham Spanier canceled Paterno’s weekly news conference on Tuesday when officials received word that he planned to address the allegations surrounding former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky and also planned to take questions on the matter.
One of the reasons Joe Paterno has achieved all that he has as a football coach is that he does not back down, he is confident in himself, and he is not afraid to speak his mind.
That was enough to terrify administration officials on Tuesday. What happens next? Does Paterno not talk after football games? Does he travel to the two remaining road games, at Ohio State and Wisconsin? Can he actually continue to function as the head coach?
There is no template for answering those questions because nothing like this has ever happened before. It is clear that the university thinks Paterno did something wrong, whether it was an act of commission by allowing a known sexual predator to remain on campus under the auspices of his program, or an act of omission by not exerting proper oversight of his football empire.
The blame for what happened is shared by many, not just Paterno. The coach did report the alleged 2002 child abuse in the Lasch Football Building to the athletic director. He testified to the grand jury that he believed, based on what graduate assistant Mike McQueary told him, the incident was “sexual” in nature. Despite knowing that, and presumably knowing that having sexual contact with a 10-year-old is a crime, he didn’t follow up when Sandusky was not investigated by outside authorities.