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On Paterno, and how we got here

paternoblog.gif Joe Paterno is finished. He says he'll retire after this season.

And while the specific circumstances behind the end of his successful, influential career are flabbergasting, the root cause of his inglorious exit should not be.

I wish I could share in the common sentiment – shock – being expressed by just about everyone over what happened at my alma mater, Penn State.

But while the exact nature of the scandal ­– and the heinous things that former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky allegedly did to innocent, helpless boys – surprises me (as apparent acts of pure, calculated evil probably should), the fact that the most powerful people at the university conspired to cover it up barely registers. Anyone who has followed how the leaders of the institution handled themselves publicly for about the last decade should have feared this could happen.

While so many of my fellow graduates – and Penn State has more than a half-million alumni – express dismay over being “let down” by their school, I just cannot summon the feeling. During my time attending Dear Old State and working at its student newspaper, The Daily Collegian, I became accustomed to an administration that often rebuffed even the simplest requests for information. The president, Graham Spanier, corresponded with us almost exclusively through email, and then barely. The athletic director Tim Curley, now charged with perjury and failing to report what he knew to authorities, rarely talked to reporters except to recite whatever pious marketing scheme he and his cronies had conjured up that week. Take real questions about the business of running a university and its sports programs, both so dear to the people of Pennsylvania? Spanier and Curley avoided that part of their duties whenever possible.

Joe Paterno often did, too. By the time I began covering him, as a freshman in 2000, he wasn’t the same cerebral intellectual-as-football-coach that I’d read about and admired as a kid. He was an icon, yes, and wrapped in his legend were big ideas like the “Grand Experiment,” which emphasized that “success without honor is an unseasoned dish.” But in my day-to-day dealings with him – as removed as they were – and his players, the focus appeared to be squarely on running a semi-pro football team known as the Nittany Lions. Joe didn’t talk quite as much about molding young men, didn’t rail quite as fervently against things he saw as subverting the sanctity of college sports. He seemed entirely comfortable with the idea that he’d made his bones decades ago, and that was that. The culture surrounding him supported that notion, of course. It was almost impossible to question the tenets of his virtue without being labeled nothing more than a rabble-rouser. Yet his players ran amok and left us constantly reading through police reports and court documents, and Paterno too often dismissed their transgressions as boys being boys. He was lenient in exactly the way Joe Paterno was not supposed to be.


As this story has ballooned, and the term “deviate sexual intercourse” has worked its way onto the sports pages, there’s been an incredible amount of reflection on why this happened and what it means. I agree, to some extent, with the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Frank Fitzpatrick, who wrote that the insular way in which Paterno ran the program left Spanier, and Curley feeling as if they were accountable to no one. Deadspin’s Dom Cosentino pointed out, and presciently so, that Penn State has long operated in a bubble; major newspapers from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh did not insist on covering the football program thoroughly, and the townspeople in State College had it in their best interest to make sure the football team, the heartbeat of their little city (and economy), had few obstacles (i.e. players who aren't academically eligible, or who get arrested).

It is worth noting, though, that even when newspapers have done a good job uncovering uncomfortable truths about Penn State, the football team has generally been coated in Teflon. Few people seem to recall that LaVon Chisley, a defensive end who spent three years in the program, committed one of the most brutal murders in Centre County history. He stabbed a fellow student -- and the son of a man who had taken him in when he lost his spot on the team -- 93 times. This came after a drastic change in his lifestyle -- he'd bought expensive dogs, humongous tattoos and wracked up $10,000 in debt to a sports agent -- led to failing grades. Where was his help? Did no one from the "Penn State family" notice this young man's life slipping away?

Even the Sandusky story did not gain traction when it should have. The Patriot-News, in Harrisburg, first reported that he was the subject of  a grand jury investigation for the indecent assault of a teenage boy on March 31. It then reported that the investigation had identified "more than one alleged victim" on Aug. 30. Yet it does not appear that any of the major news outlets now swarming campus paid much attention. Sure, Paterno had not yet been tied to the scandal. But it should have at least sent a few reporters scurrying; Sandusky, after all, remained affiliated with Penn State. The Second Mile was, if unofficially, part of what made Penn State different. That a long-time assistant would leave to run a charity for children showed that Penn State had its priorities in order (though the real reason for Sandusky's departure should probably be questioned now.)

***

Players were constantly getting into violent altercations with other students when I was at Penn State. There were fights at the ice skating rink, the union building at the center of campus, frats, apartments, houses. I covered one sexual assault trial -- for former Ravens cornerback Anwar Phillips, who was acquitted but went on to stay classy (what the link fails to note is that after "accepting responsibility" for his role in the incident at Penn State, Phillips was allowed to play in a bowl game before serving his two-semester suspension) -- and looked into probably a half-dozen others that never went to trial. Women were fearful they'd never get a fair trial in State College. Victims of beatings knew the scales of justice were already tilted against them. ESPN actually compiled numbers to show just how rambunctious it got in Happy Valley, reporting that from 2002 to 2008 there were 46 players charged with 163 counts.

Yet none of it stuck. Penn State remained a place where they "did it the right way." Paterno's public relations savvy certainly helped. It was Paterno, after all, who'd wooed reporters across the state as a young man with his stories of scholar-athletes who excelled on the field and were engaged in the classroom. Later in his career, Paterno's wisdom was solidly established and he could get away with swatting real questions by reminding reporters that he'd been around a long time.

Paterno’s original approach to the scandal was familiar. That does not make it any more rational, or less insulting. Head coaches can be this way. As dictators of their multi-million dollar programs, they tend to forget that the rest of the world doesn’t work that way. Considering Paterno has been the man in charge since 1966 and has outlasted every one of his peers – how many people anywhere have big, hands-on jobs at the age of 84? – he’s long since lost the capacity to accept that he might not at all times be the only authority that matters. Or, that at other times, he might just be full of crap, and outrageously so.

No one can possibly believe that Paterno, when informed by a panicked graduate assistant that something untoward had happened in the shower involving a man and a boy, could have synthesized that information into anything requiring that he merely advise his supervisor and then forget about it. This notion, on its face, is patently absurd. But when you add other elements – like the fact that the graduate assistant was Mike McQueary, who Paterno once trusted to play quarterback for him and later gave a full time job to – you have no choice but to realize that Paterno whisked the information aside to protect his program and his friend, in that order. Now he has to obscure the issue by trying to turn it into an issue of semantics, saying that he didn't know the "very specific actions" that allegedly happened in the shower -- as if he needed that level of detail to know whether it was right or wrong. 

He does this because he’s the Coach – how many other job titles not bestowed by professional degree or institutional rank stick with people? You never hear, There goes Accountant Smith or Trashman Jones or Structural Engineer Edwards – and he’s accustomed to shaping the world around him. It’s a well-worn joke among Nittany Lions fans that Paterno annually makes East Carolina or West Nowheresville University sound as if they’re suddenly fielding a football team worthy of national title consideration. That, of course, is essentially a white lie and the sort of thing every coach at every level does to ensure that his team respects the opponent. But give coaches enough leeway – and Paterno had as much as anyone has ever had – and they’ll lapse into casting every situation the way they need it to appear for the good of the team.

When covering Indiana basketball, I wrote about the end of Kelvin Sampson’s short tenure there. He was ousted, eventually, because he had lied about his part in – let us all shout this now – very minor NCAA rules transgressions involving the use of telephones to contact recruits. Without going too in detail, Sampson’s culpability in the matter depended almost entirely on whether he realized where certain calls were coming from. That is to say, whether or not he had looked at the caller ID on his phone before answering. Sampson steadfastly claimed that he had not, despite the fact that on the particular phone he had a the time it would have been nearly impossible to not read the name or phone number, printed in large letters on the screen, before accepting the call. Sampson maintained, though, that he was so anxious to receive calls from recruits – he was barred from placing them due to violations he’d committed at Oklahoma – that he simply answered the phone right away, as soon as it rang, without letting his eyes scan the letters or numbers less than an inch above the spot on the screen he’d press to take the call.

 Sampson probably still stands behind this blatant lie. He also never admitted that, whatever the case, the fact that he failed to take every step possible to ensure he was doing the right thing meant he had done the wrong thing.

Paterno, at least, has admitted to his failures. In the release announcing his plan to retire, he said: " It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more."

 ***

During the lean years in the early part of the 2000s, when Penn State was not going to bowl games, it was fashionable to say Paterno was “out of touch,” – that he didn’t understand the way football had changed and couldn’t handle the demands of recruiting kids who grew up playing video games instead of stickball and preferred text messages to hand written letters. That, of course, was a moot point. Paterno would prove as much by putting together a few pretty good football teams later in the decade. Football generally isn't as complicated as those of us who write and talk about it make it seem. It favors the strong and the fast, and sometimes the meanest or trickiest. There's a lot of luck involved. Joe Paterno knew how to build teams and then compel them to win. He never lost touch with that.

What he seemed to lose focus on, at least, was what he had envisioned for Penn State football.  Maybe, as many have suggested, his fundraising duties took him too far away from the actual coaching. But when he said that Tony Johnson, a wide receiver who'd arrested for DUI "didn't do anything to anyone" it stoked outrage across the state. How could he not realize that with one swerve Johnson could have changed so many lives forever? How could he be so cavalier?

Paterno has pledged to spend the rest of his life helping the university. Hopefully that means raising money for a national center to study child abuse. None of the money he raises should need to go to football; the program he built should generate more than enough to keep the athletic department going. Paterno should also spend time getting to know the best professors at the university, and then he should go out of his way to tell their stories. He should investigate all of the studies being conducted, the projects being completed, the books being published and the buildings being constructed by the people who really Are Penn State with the same furor that he dissected opposing defenses. He should tout those things where ever he goes, should fight for them the way he would for one of his players who was up for the Heisman. He should do everything possible to turn the focus on the very good, very difficult real-world work being done by so many who weren't drawn to Penn State because it represented some blissfully naive Happy Valley numbed by empty revelry but because it was a place where they could make a difference.

He should help Penn State become what he wanted it to become.

Comments

This is idiotic. He was the football coach, has donated millions to the university, and, outside of this tragedy, owes nothing to you or any students, faculty, or alumni. Your urge to write THE BIG STORY on Paterno makes your motives transparent: you resent the football culture of State College, because you and your other pipsqueak pals at the "Daily Collegian" (lol) didn't get your calls returned by Paterno or other university administrators. Big deal.

And no, I am not an alum nor do I care much for what happens to Paterno. I just needed to call out a lame essay when I saw one.

Great read, Chris. Hope you're doing well.

Bri

His words ring hollow on the vics ears and their families thank you for a very well written piece

I thought the article was very thoughtful and did a good job of depicting how something like this could have happened at PSU.

Great story -love reading your perspective on all of this.

Groundskeeper, I kind of agree with you. I've seen more than one reporter for a student paper who really thought he knew better at age 19. This story reeks of a kid who didn't get the respect he thought he was due at the time and now gets to say "told you so". Why go out of your way to attack the AD for only touting "pious marketing schemes"? What is a pious marketing scheme -- church night? (Then name a minor league ballpark that hasn't had one of those.)

Getting away from the snarkiness over life as a Happy Valley skeptic, it's good insight, though. The law-breaking is undeniable and is a sure sign things weren't quite as idyllic as Penn State wanted them to seem.

I also liked the analogy of the coaching white lie -- building up an opponent, shaping things to be what you want them to be. Do that as long as JoePa and it's bound to snag you, although nobody could have imagined this when thinking about how.

The mess is unimaginably horrible and Happy Valley won't ever be the same. And here's the irony, as this piece correctly points out in its way: the morality of the NCAA rule book isn't really morality at all.

Evaluating Paterno's actions leads to two - and only two - possibilities:

1) Every college football coach that I am aware of monitors every aspect of their football program down to making sure player's lockers are cleaned every week. If Paterno was a competent head football coach, then he was fully aware of every detail of the program, including what Sandusky was doing.

2) Paterno was not aware of what was happening, which implies that he has been out of the loop for over a decade and operates as a mere figurehead.

Good stuff, Chris. Really enjoyed it. The only thing I've looked forward to since this scandal broke is getting to read your perspective.

Sorry you had to write this piece Chris, but glad you did - job well done. The 'toy dept.' isn't supposed to be this sad. From your old friend Kurk81 in Bloomington.

Chris great writing and covering of the story. We miss you back at Hoosier Scoop but maybe you were meant to be there close to the situation and write this story.

Hopefully PSU cleans house and rebuilds their tradition the "right way" which ironically is what Paterno always said he was doing.

Great job

Old Sports Dude

I've read many articles covering this fiasco, and this one is by far the best and most touching. Thank you for an excellent point of view. From a proud and now very hurt and angry parent of a daughter who is a dean's list alumni.

The environment at Penn State is cult like and dangerous (see the first post).

Great article about this tragedy, a complete house cleaning is in order.

So let me get this straight. This article was written by a former student that felt sleighted, so is now treating Paternon unfairly?

What a leap.

How about facts....is this article innacurate by stating that 46 players were arrested on over 150 charges over a six year period? Or is that just an aggravated former school newspaper writer?

Story is very well written, many sources cited, and many facts. Well done.

I really don't understand the criticisms of the author. What does this statement in the first comment above even mean--"outside of this tragedy, [Paterno] owes nothing to you, other students, faculty or alumni"? First, as the head coach of a college football program he does owe it to the students, faculty and alumni to represent them at all times in a first class manner, to conduct himself properly and take the steps necessary to insure that those for whom he is responsible do likewise. Even putting that aside, "in this tradedy" he had the duty to do what any decent, caring human being would have done--run the reports to ground until all allegations of inappropriate physical contact with a child were fully investigated and Sandusky was exonerated. It's really beyond debate that he didn't do that. He shirked all human decency for the sake of a football program. That is shameful and inexcusable. The fact that he intends to coach the last several games shows just how out of touch he really is.

Someone in MN remind us here of the quote from Edmund Burke: "All that is required for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." Boy, if that does not cover this situation to a T.

Brilliant. This is the true story of Joe Paterno and Penn State from a guy who was there. Thank you for giving focus at this sad time.

It may pain people but here's the reality. As Muslims get linked to terrorism, as white men get linked to racism, as blacks get linked to crime, now so do Nittany Lion alumni get linked to pedophilia. What's the first thought someone will get from now on when they hear a new job applicant graduated from Penn St? And, all you Paterno supporters can thank your idol for having been complicit in that.

Please don't include East Carolina in anything related to Penn State... Thank you

If the rest of your story is as prejudicial as your reference to East Carolina then you owe Coach Paterno a huge apology.

If you are compelled to slam East Carolina, then why not mention UNC, NCSU, VPI, Syracuse, Pitt, South Carolina, WVU, Stanford, Missouri, Boise, UVA,-all teams ECU has beaten in the recent past? You, Mr. Korman, are a dolt.

May I ask why it was necessary to slam my alma mater in an article which has NOTHING to do with the grand total of TWO games we ever played against Penn State? It is possible to make your points without insulting a university which is NOT involved in this scandal and has not played Penn State since 1986.

Don't drag East Carolina down into this criminal activity. We don't have any criminal child molestors on our staff and we don't have a head coach that is criminally conspiring to cover up 20 years of criminal activity. Too bad for Joe Pa. He'll look good in black and white...jail stripes.

I cannot believe the guy that saw the act and walked away doesn't have some accountability. He reports it and nothing is said. If what Sandusky did was true and this guy walked away from a child being molested then he should be vilified. Instead they go after a man who heard a rumor and followed protocal. It is up to the senior staff to follow with notifying authorities. Even one victums mother said Sandusky admitted 13 years ago to her that he molested her child - Trust me, I it was my child I would have made enough noise the whole country would have known about it 13 years ago.

Are you serious joking about ECU? I've got a joke for you:

If an older woman likes young men they call her a cougar...so what are old men who like young men called...a Nitney Lion!

Do me a favor and don't drag my alma mater- East Carolina- into your crappy story. We havent played each other in decades, why you chose ECU is mind boggling. Trash article just like Paterno, and especially Sandusky.

When I read a story like this I always wonder people who feel as they do about someone wait until that person is in trouble for whatever reason to pile on. Why didn't they write the story well before a troubling event. All the sports writers can't seem to get to their computers fast enough to tell us what they have thought all alone but were too cowardly to print or in the case of TV and radio to say.

I have no doubt that the shame that has fallen to Penn St is well deserved but might not it have been exposed earlier if the media had done its job and exposed what it knew or thought it knew about the football program and Paterno.

Great blog and you've answered some questions about the atmosphere that was established around PSU football. Paterno was fired and should be to salvage what is left of the brand's good image. Another significant reason was the trustees finally sent a message to Joe Paterno, that he's not bigger than the university! In 2004, amid poor records he was asked to step down and he refused. This time he had no choice as the board opted to save whatever is left of the Penn State brand!

Another puzzling aspect of the heinous situation and criminal acts is the length of time this endured and the extent of the cover up. You've accurately depicted how the attitude of the university allowed transgressions to slip by the wayside, but just how many people were involved in this scandal? Also, why did it take so long for the accusations to come to light? Were the victims parents stifled for this long without these allegations leaking to the press? I can't seem to wrap my head around this; however, I've never been a part of big time college football.

What does that comment about East Carolina University add to your story? As an alum, with a bachelors and masters degree from East Carolina you sir owe all my fellow alums, my wife who is also an alum, and my son who is a student an apology.

It is kind of amusing that feel you have to trash a school, in this case East Carolina University, to try and move the attention away from the "great" Penn State. You my friend are delusional and you are also an idiot. If you feel you need to trash a school, why don't you focus on those that are in the news now...UNC, Miami, UCF etc. Take a hike.

Once again you see what policians can do when they set their mniniscule brains to it. Firing Joe Paterno was NOT the way this should have ended. I guess the ineffectual leaderhsip at UMD has spread to Penn State. 8^(

please don't mention Penn State and East Carolina in the same sentence...it makes our fine institution look bad!!! We do not and never will want to be Penn State!!!!

You're article was a half-way decent read until you brought East Carolina University into this. It doen't surprise me that PSU ( Pedophile State University ) is having all these problems and then a PSU grad writes trash like this. You should be demoted back to desk clerk !

Great take on this situation, Mr. Korman. With all of the talk about ECU in these comments, I thought I'd look for an impartial review of that school. Unfortunately, here's what found from an ECU student: This is the worst school in the history of Earth. I'm a graduate student and I really wish I went to another school. During orientation for the graduate school one of the speakers asked everyone who was new to ECU to raise their hand. Nearly everyone raised their hand; a very bad sign. I feel like everyone that I encounter is a complete idiot. My professors couldn't care any less about their students. Furthermore, Greenville has got to be the worst place to live in America. I feel like I am living in the Twilight Zone. If I ever own a business I will make sure that I never hire anyone who received an education at ECU. To conclude: ECU sucks.

Great read...the fact that people are so lost in his celebrity that they ignore his inaction is absurd.

In response to Todd, I am an ECU grad who grew up in Greenville. The "impartial review" you shared is quite different from my experience at ECU. I would have to worry a great deal about and ECU student who would never hire anyone who received an education there. Also, last tiime I checked, orientation was for new people. Apparently you feel that current students need to be reminded of where all the classrooms are. ECU is an outstading school that I am proud to have both my undergrad and graduate degree from (I only went to one orientation). Go Pirates!!!

A well-researched story with plenty of poignant detail. Your background as a Collegian reporter and PSU grad added a lot of authenticity in describing the football-first atmosphere at State College. Great personal color.

Hey MHC Pirate, We have an airport in Greenville. Please feel free to use it.

I apologize to the East Carolina fan base.

Obviously I mentioned your school as a throwaway line, it not being noted as a football powerhouse in general.

Anything else you think I was inferring, I wasn't.

To those of you who took umbrage sanely, with concerned emails, thanks. To those of you called me vile names and threatened violence, you may have missed the entire point of this article.

Stopped reading as soon as I realized the author is carrying a chip on his shoulder from when he was a student.

Chris,

We'll be glad to play Penn State University at any time. Then we can determine the level of our program since you still feel the need to put us down, I.e., " not a football powerhouse."

I think we are certainly above Penn State at this point in many ways! We don't sanction and hide the molestation of children!

Mr. Korman,
I deeply apologize for any member of the ECU fan base whose actions reflected our love of the school in an inappropriate manner. However I do not feel any remorse in your apology.
We are typically not a delusional fan base. ECU is not a college football powerhouse. But we also are not a chronic whipping boy of the PSU football program, and did not deserve a spot of infamy as a "throwaway" line regarding a scandal in which we have no place. Furthermore as this article gets tweeted and shared, the implication does exist, whether intentional or not. The best correction would be to eliminate the reference to our school. Thank you.
Evelyn Cooper, ECU 1985

Well it's pretty tough to infer anything other than negative things when you toss us in with "West Nowhere State University." My question is what made our name come up as the so called dog school to throw in there? Is it just our name, or other reasons? I'm sorry that some less reasonable ECU fans resorted to name calling and threats.

Someone gave you a shout out this morning on the Herd, so I thought I'd look it up. Great Read. Very insightful. Thanks...

How about you delete East Carolina from the article. Dragging ECU in to this mess is madness. Delete the ECU reference. We want nothing to do with this.

DELETE PLEASE!!!!!!!!!!

I'd like for people to realize that the Penn State community extends far beyond main campus, where all of this took place. Penn State has numerous satellite campuses all over the state, that are very far removed from the main campus culture. As an alum I DO feel let down, but I can understand how you, being an insider and knowing what goes on behind the scenes, could not bring yourself to muster those feelings. My campus, being that it was so small, was closeknit and I am proud to have been a part of that PSU community, but I do not feel the same sense of blind loyalty to Paterno and PSU football that others feel.
As someone who was never part of the main campus culture, I am saddened that every other campus is guilty by association. One person commented that they wanted nothing to do with PSU... why should the entire community be demonized by the evil acts of a few? Not all Penn Staters or alumni are rioting and not all of
us feel sympathy for Paterno or Spanier.
The comment about PSU alum being forever linked to pedophilia is idiotic. Again, you cannot hold every member of a community, especially on as far reaching a PSU, responsible for the actions of a few. You cannot even make conclusions about a "PSU culture", without first recognizing that each campus has its own identity and its own culture idependent of that of main campus.

Hey hey, don't drag East Carolina into the cesspool that is Penn State football.

What a low class thing to bring East Carolina into this. Terrible terrible journalist.

Todd,
That was some real in depth research. You talked to one person. What a control group! Just out of curiosity, where did you go to college? I'd like to know so I when I see applications from people from that school I can be sure not to hire them. No that wouldn't be right to penalize them because of ONE moron who was an alum of their university.

I echo the sentiments of other East Carolina Alumni. I find the use of my alma mater distasteful and would kindly ask that you delete any reference to it from your article. To liken us to "West Nowhere State University" as a "throwaway line" is very demeaning and serves no place in your article regarding Penn State.

Thank you,
Brad White, ECU '98

Why are you dragging my alma mater in to the mess in Happy Valley? LEAVE ECU OUT OF THIS MESS. You know nothing of which you speak. We regularly beat many BCS team including both the ACC and BIg East champs in back to back weeks a couple of years ago. 5 straight bowl games, 50,000+ in attendance weekly. Whats your problem. We'll be waiting for an apology and retraction. What a snotty nosed stupid thing to write.

The article isn't about ECU. It's about Penn State. ECU fans - get off your high horse and recognize that the point of the article has NOTHING TO DO WITH YOU. Relax, and focus on the victims of this terrible situation, not your hurt egos.

Goodness gracious, the ECU people need to grow up. A throwaway line in a serious piece -- geez. Do you even understand the point the author was trying to make? (And as much as you guys may want to think ECU is some great football power -- hey, enjoy it as C-USA comes crumbling down around you.)

Hey ECU fans, just relax. Nobody thinks your little school is actually involved in the Paterno situation. It doesn't matter if your school's name is mentioned in this story. Most people reading it probably think it is just a hypothetical name of a school anyway, not a real school. If people are familiar with your school or town, it's probably because they heard about the inappropriate fully naked picture of a streaker recently published in your school newspaper or they recall the child seduction story involving the daughter of a Greenville school's football coach.

Joe Paterno was really the man of the principle and he did the great thing in his wonderful carer.

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