Whenever I would talk to Joe Paterno’s former players during the last several years, they would almost inevitably talk about the lessons Penn State’s football coach had imparted.
“I didn’t always see eye-to-eye with Joe. A lot of times, I didn’t even like him,” they would say. “But years later, I realized what he was trying to teach me at the time, and I’d think, ‘He was exactly right.’”
When he wasn’t squawking at players for missing a block or making an arm tackle these last 60 years or so, Paterno was subtly or not-so- subtly trying to shape their character. Show up early. Dress the part. Look people in the eye. And that was just the stuff he said. Paterno’s players
also learned, by watching and listening, how to manage a diverse group of personalities — who needed to be encouraged, who needed discipline. He taught them how to respond from defeat, to put victory in perspective, to take advantage of their opportunities but to be patient.
This week, Paterno gave the massive Penn State football fraternity, the university, its massive alumni base and the rest of the world his greatest lesson yet.
This time, he wasn’t the teacher. He was the living, breathing embodiment of the lesson itself.
The toughest thing for some people to accept about the events of the last few days and the way they have been covered by the media, it seems, is that the spotlight has shined the brightest on Paterno. Not on Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, the administrators who were in as much of a position to act and did not when Mike McQueary reported an alleged child rape in 2002. Not on McQueary, who did not attempt to stop the act. Not on Penn State president Graham Spanier, the man at the very top of the chain. Spanier’s dismissal, which almost any other week would have been the story of the year in Pennsylvania, was a relative afterthought.
Not even on Jerry Sandusky, who started the tornado that became the maelstrom that has swallowed the university whole.
No, the headlines, the stories and the speculation were mostly about the man they call JoePa, the man whose name and famous face had been synonymous with Penn State for decades.
I suppose all there is to say to that is “What did you expect?” Paterno is the most recognizable and prominent figure the university has ever known. What he says, does, doesn’t say or doesn’t do has long been and will always be analyzed and scrutinized far more closely than the words and deeds of the vast majority of other people in positions of leadership on and away from the football field.
That’s the key here, isn’t it? There were several leaders in position to stop Sandusky’s alleged trail of victims in its tracks nearly a decade ago, and none of them did. Paterno is no more morally culpable than Curley or Schultz or Spanier or McQueary, but he is more renowned than all of them, and the board of trustees knew that.
The board also knew it needed to send a message to the world that the sort of monstrous behavior described in chilling detail in the 23-page grand jury presentment would not only not be tolerated but not even given an environment in which to exist at all. It needed to send the message that Penn State would not abide those who would not do everything in their power to ensure the safety of a child, to remove even the slightest bit of suspicion that a predator might be in their midst.
Firing Spanier sends that message. Firing Paterno shouts that message from the rooftops at a time when everyone with a television set or a computer was watching and listening.
There are still numerous layers to this story. The fallout so far has been far-reaching and deep. There are still people who have much to answer for. It’s hard to imagine anyone on the current football staff being around at the start of next season. It’s hard to imagine that there won’t be additional shakeups in Old Main or even among the trustees themselves.
Is that fair to the coaches, the administrators or the trustees who had limited or no knowledge of the alleged crimes? Is it fair that Paterno, who had at least some knowledge of what McQueary said he saw in the shower that terrible night, is out of a job today?
I don’t know. But I know that it isn’t about fairness anymore. It’s about restoration. The only direction the board and the football program and the university can move now is forward, which is going to be more difficult than some people realize for a school and an alumni base so steeped in tradition.
Paterno gave the board one way out Wednesday when he said he would resign at the end of the season. The board decided to take it one step — a big step — further, ending the coach’s 46-year career in mid-season and denying him a final game in Beaver Stadium. It was a stunning development even in a week filled with one stunning development after another. Sending a message, indeed.
The word that has been ringing in my ears during the last few days is “lesson.” Former Penn State wide receiver Rich Mauti used it. NCAA president Mark Emmert used it. I have to wonder if Paterno sees the lesson here, if the educator in him can appreciate his role in the tumult and what his firing means. I wonder if Paterno believes the school and the community he loved and served for so long will learn from this ordeal and fight like hell so that it never happens again.
Paterno knew that he had to leave before Penn State could truly move forward. To some, the timing of his departure and the way he was notified of it are irrelevant details. To others, those details are everything. They’re at the root of the hurt and anger that is somehow distinguishable from the hurt and the anger stemming from the allegations.
Either way, the lesson is the same, and it is this: When you allow one man to become the face of not only his program, but a university, the rest of the world, rightly or wrongly, will hold that man accountable for what takes place and what allegedly takes place at that university. Paterno’s face is the face of the Penn State that was — the victories, the pride, the philanthropy, the spirit and yes, now, the scandal.
Penn State, for the first time in decades, is in search of a new face.
Jeff Rice covers Penn State football for the Centre Daily Times. He can be reached at 231-4609 firstname.lastname@example.org.