It was Christmas Day in 1986 when I learned a lot about Joe Paterno and the football program at The Pennsylvania State University.
Tucked under the Christmas tree was a shiny Sports Illustrated magazine, featuring Paterno, who was named Sportsman of the Year. As I delved into the pages of my first SI magazine, the story revealed an individual who was an iconic figure in Happy Valley and a coach who built his program on integrity and values. He seemed like the coach that parents could trust and a fatherly figure who knew and did what was best for his players.
From that point on, I followed Paterno and marveled at his longevity status as the leader of a big-time college football program. Although I knew about Paterno after reading the story about him that day, I didn’t know about the coaches surrounding him. One of those men included recently convicted child molester Jerry Sandusky, once considered as Paterno’s replacement and the team’s longtime defensive coordinator.
At that time and the years that followed, I loved what Paterno once stood for, but now, I’m not so sure.
Instead of taking care of the sex abuse issue the first time a Sandusky incident was reported, the problem became bigger and one thing led to another. During a period of 15 years, Sandusky molested several boys and remained on Paterno’s staff until his retirement. Instead of being asked to leave, Sandusky stayed on the football staff at Penn State.
Therein lies the problem with Paterno’s response to Sandusky’s shameful acts.
Evidently those above the iconic coach in administration felt the same way — simply push the allegations aside and move forward, hoping none of them became public. Any revelation of Sandusky’s disgraceful private life would be the beginning of the end for a college football program that prides itself as a national championship contender on a yearly basis. Paterno wanted to stay on top and didn’t want a potential sex scandal to ruin his legacy.
Paterno did move on won 111 games in his last 14 seasons and left the sport as college football’s all-time winningest coach with 409 victories. Even as his age was becoming a factor in his later years, Paterno remained the King of the Hill in Happy Valley.
That’s the way Paterno wanted to go out.
However, his deaf ear to a sex abuse problem in his program created by Sandusky, led to his downfall. Apparently winning was more important to Paterno than doing the right thing at the time. The ending could have been different and his statue at Beaver Stadium would have stood for the ages.
It’s not my place to judge Paterno, who passed away earlier this year because of lung cancer, but evidence suggests that he knew about the child abuse scandal before it became public. Taking care of the matter then could have prevented the sanctions imposed on the program he built from the ground up. Instead, his legacy was tarnished by the ending, not the beginning and middle of his tenure as coach of the Nittany Lions.
That’s a shame.
Sex scandal tarnished Paterno's image
Joe Paterno (The Associated Press / July 24, 2012)