Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Joe Paterno's Legacy

"They ask me what I'd like written about me when I'm gone. I hope they write I made Penn State a better place, not just that I was a good football coach."--Joe Paterno, 1926-2012

Joe Paterno, who led Penn State's football team with distinction and honor for 46 years, passed away on Sunday, succumbing to lung cancer at the age of 85. Paterno's legacy first and foremost is the "Grand Experiment," which Paterno once described as "not football that puts winning first, but first class football played by students who put first-class lives first." Paterno arrived at Penn State in 1950 and served as an assistant coach under Rip Engle through the 1965 season before taking the helm in 1966 after Engle retired. Penn State was lightly regarded as both an academic institution and a football program but Paterno quickly elevated Penn State's status in both categories: after posting a 5-5 record in 1966 and an 8-2-1 mark in 1967, Paterno led the Nittany Lions to twin 11-0 records in 1968 and 1969, capping off both campaigns with Orange Bowl wins. Paterno's on field success combined with strong moral character greatly raised Penn State's overall national profile and helped to enhance Penn State's reputation as an academic institution. Paterno did not just give lip service to the value and importance of education; he made sure that the vast majority of his players graduated and he worked tirelessly to help Penn State grow: Joe Paterno and his wife Sue donated more than $4 million to various departments and colleges at Penn State.

Joe Paterno is a unique figure in major college sports history and we will never see someone like him again: no one will have his amazing combination of longevity, on field success and off field integrity. Bobby Knight consistently won at the highest level of college basketball while emphasizing academics but he is also a boorish bully who acted abusively toward his players, staff members, referees, media members and anyone else within earshot; Knight stood for much that is right about college sports but he also is a deeply flawed person. John Wooden perhaps comes closest to matching Paterno in terms of maintaining high standards on the field/court and off the field/court but Sam Gilbert's shady dealings helped Wooden to acquire many of the talented players who built Wooden's UCLA dynasty. Ohio State once hoped/believed that Jim Tressel stood for both victory on the field and integrity off of it but that fictional facade barely lasted a decade before completely crumbling. Perhaps Duke's Mike Krzyzewski comes closest to matching Paterno's standards but I doubt that Krzyzewski will equal Paterno's longevity.

No, I am not forgetting or ignoring the elephant in the room--but when a great man dies, the first words uttered about his legacy simply must describe his decades of good work molding the character and lives of thousands of young men while playing a crucial role in helping to build a little known small town school into an internationally respected academic institution. Joe Paterno was not flawless and he freely acknowledged--perhaps too freely in a soundbite driven media age that abhors context or any semblance of intellectual depth--that "in hindsight" (emphasis added) he wishes that he had done more to stop Jerry Sandusky, the longtime Penn State assistant football coach who has been accused of child sexual molestation. Paterno was not close with Sandusky off the field and in 1999 he made it clear to Sandusky that Sandusky would not succeed Paterno because (in an irony whose full horror is only now apparent) Sandusky was too devoted to his Second Mile charity, the organization that Sandusky founded and apparently used as a convenient source of vulnerable victims.

Only Joe Paterno and Mike McQueary know what McQueary told Paterno on that fateful and now infamous night in 2002 but the grand jury that indicted Sandusky believed the testimonies provided by both Paterno and McQueary. Paterno informed Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley and Penn State Vice President Gary Shultz (who was in charge of the school's campus police) that McQueary had observed Sandusky engaging in questionable conduct with a young boy. McQueary subsequently met with Curley and Schultz and provided them with graphic details of what he saw. The grand jury did not find Curley or Schultz to be credible witnesses and thus indicted both men.

Paterno benched key players before big bowl games if they violated rules. "Success with honor" was not just a catchphrase for Paterno but a way of life. It is vile for anyone to suggest that Paterno deliberately and knowingly covered up Sandusky's alleged crimes in order to protect the Penn State football program, particularly since all of the evidence demonstrates that Paterno immediately reported McQueary's concerns to the appropriate authorities. Curley and Schultz dropped the ball (forgive the sports analogy) in this matter. Should Paterno have followed up to see what Curley and Schultz did and/or should Paterno have confronted Sandusky? Those are certainly valid questions but I think that what Paterno was most guilty of is that he trusted Curley and Schultz too much. Sandusky was no longer on Paterno's staff and it should not have been up to Paterno to interrogate Sandusky. What do Paterno's critics think would have been the result of that? Do they think that Sandusky have broken down and confessed? This was not an episode of Perry Mason or Law & Order.

The bottom line regarding Paterno's role in the Sandusky sex abuse case is that Sandusky's alleged crimes did not occur on "Paterno's watch." They happened on Curley and Schultz' watch and on the watch of the Penn State Board of Trustees--and that Board revealed itself to be, individually and collectively, a bunch of clueless cowards and blowhards; the Board members admitted that they had been completely in the dark about the Sandusky matter during the grand jury proceedings but as soon as a media firestorm erupted in the wake of the indictments of Sandusky, Curley and Schultz the Board wasted no time seeking out, finding and executing (I choose this word most deliberately, because the Board in essence hit Paterno with the death penalty) the most convenient and vulnerable scapegoat: Joe Paterno, the public face (and ailing body) of Penn State University. The Board wiped out six decades of "success with honor" with a hastily held meeting culminating in a message to Paterno to call a phone number to find out that he had been fired. Paterno's declining physical health--even before the public revelation that he had the cancer that would ultimately end his life just months later--made it unlikely that he would have been capable of coaching the team for much longer and Paterno had already announced his intention to retire after the 2011 season but the Board could not stand being upstaged nor resist the heat being applied by yellow journalists demanding blood. The Board transformed a Sandusky-Penn State scandal into a Joe Paterno scandal; we hardly heard a word from Penn State University President Graham Spanier (who the Board rightfully fired) or from Curley and Schultz and the Board members admitted that they did not know anything more about Paterno's actions than the information contained in the indictment (which cleared Paterno of any wrongdoing) but the Board terminated Paterno immediately, ensuring that Sandusky's dreadful alleged crimes will always be associated in the public mind with Paterno. Sandusky will get his day in court, as will Curley and Schultz. The Board of Trustees should have, at the very least, met face to face with Paterno to communicate their concerns directly to him. The best solution would have been for the Board to graciously accept Paterno's offered resignation while expressing sincere appreciation for his decades of service.

The media witch hunt not only contributed to Paterno's demise but the media also prematurely reported his death, a despicable lapse of journalistic ethics that has become increasingly common (an article in USA Today called this trend of premature death reporting "obiticide"--a word coined by Craig Silverman of the Poynter Institute--and noted that previous victims included Pope John Paul II and Bob Hope). Let it be clearly noted that CBSSports.com--which led the way by incorrectly reporting Scottie Pippen's bankruptcy (Pippen is not broke and has sued 10 media outlets, including CBS)--not only committed obiticide against Paterno but committed plagiarism in doing so, relying on (but not acknowledging) an unverified (and incorrect) report from a student-run news organization. During journalism's free fall from grace it is hard to top a national news network falsely reporting a person's death by relying on an unconfirmed (and unmentioned) item provided by an amateur media outfit staffed by students.

Hopefully, with the passage of time cooler heads will prevail and Paterno will be remembered first and foremost for the "Grand Experiment" (the Big Ten Conference could make one move in that direction by reversing the hasty decision to remove Paterno's name from the Conference's football championship trophy). Joe Paterno was a shining light in the increasingly murky cesspool of college sports.

Although Joe Paterno should be most remembered for the "Grand Experiment," it should not be overlooked that a good case can be made that he is the greatest and most accomplished coach in college football history. Here is a partial list of his achievements during his 46 year career at Penn State:
  1. Most wins in Division I/Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) history: 409 (409-136-3 record overall)
  2. Most bowl wins and most bowl appearances: 24-12-1 bowl record overall
  3. First coach to win Orange, Rose, Sugar, Fiesta and Cotton Bowls at least once each
  4. Five undefeated, untied seasons: 1968, 1969, 1973, 1986, 1994; only the 1986 team was officially crowned as the national champion but each of the other four squads also won major bowl games (the first three each won the Orange Bowl, while the 1994 squad defeated Oregon 38-20 in the Rose Bowl)
  5. Two National Championships: 1982, 1986
  6. Three Big Ten Championships: 1994, 2005, 2008
  7. Posted a winning record in 38 of 46 seasons, breaking Paul "Bear" Bryant's record (Bryant had 37 winning seasons in his 38 year career)
  8. Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year: 1986
  9. Five-time American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) Coach of the Year: 1968, 1978, 1982, 1986, 2005
  10. In 2009, the Sporting News ranked Paterno 13th on their list of the 50 all-time greatest coaches (MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL, college basketball, and college football)
Further Reading:

Cowardly Lions: Penn State Acted Slowly on Sandusky Allegations but Swiftly Made Paterno a Scapegoat (November 10, 2011)

Christine Flowers Blasts Penn State for Hastily Firing Joe Paterno (November 11, 2011)

Joe Posnanski Criticizes the Media's Coverage of the Sandusky Scandal (November 11, 2011)

Members of Penn State's Board Attempt to Justify Abrupt Paterno Firing (January 19, 2012)

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