Monday, July 23, 2012

The Fall of the Paterno Empire

Yesterday morning, shortly before dawn on a Sunday, the statue of Joe Paterno was removed from its pedestal outside Beaver Stadium in State College, Pennsylvania.

Note that this was the time of the week when such an activity would be least likely to be seen by a college student. And one of the least likely for it to be seen by a reporter with a television camera.  Or anyone with a video recorder and the means to display such a video.

Penn State: Moral cowards to the end.

It should have been done at high noon, and not carefully done with a crane.  In the immortal words of Bruce Springsteen, "Bring on your wrecking ball."

*

This is not just a statue of Joe Paterno coming down now, this is Penn State football coming down with it, like the walls at Penn State University came tumbling down at the same time. This is the end, once and for all, for the implied notion that Penn State football, because of Paterno, was somehow better and different and more noble than the other bigtime programs in this country. NCAA president Mark Emmert said on Monday morning, in announcing his profound sanctions against the school and its football program, that this wasn't the death penalty. But it was.

Paterno has been dead six months. Penn State football, everything it once meant in college football and college sports, everything we thought it meant, officially died on Monday morning once Emmert stepped to the podium and talked about a $60 million fine — one year of average gross revenue from the football program — and no bowl games for four years and the loss of 10 scholarships for the next four years and probation and all the rest of it.

 -- Mike Lupica


I often disagree with Lupica, the legendary New York Daily News columnist who is blatantly anti-Yankee, pro-Met and pro-Red Sox.  This time he's right.

It's hard to pinpoint precisely when the Joe Paterno legend began.  It's not really fair to say it was on September 17, 1966, the date of his first game as head coach at Pennsylvania State University, a 15-7 home win over the University of Maryland, in front of 40,911 fans -- at the time, enough to sell Beaver Stadium out.

Perhaps it was on January 1, 1969, when Paterno led the Nittany Lions, then ranked Number 3, to a 15-14 victory over Kansas, Champions of the league then known as the Big Eight Conference and ranked Number 6, in the Orange Bowl, clinching an undefeated season, in front of a national television audience on NBC.  But, in those days, the Associated Press (AP) and United Press International (UPI) conducted their final polls before the bowl games, so Penn State did not receive the National Championship.  Ohio State did, and few would have argued, as Woody Hayes' Buckeyes were both undefeated and spectacular.


After that season, the Pittsburgh Steelers offered Paterno their vacant head coaching position.  Supposedly, he came close to accepting.  But he turned it down.  We may never know what would have happened if Joe Pa had gone from Happy Valley to Three Rivers.  What we do know is that the Steelers hired Chuck Noll, a pretty good two-way lineman in the 1950s who'd had some success as an NFL assistant coach, and they became the Team of the Seventies, including 4 Super Bowl appearances, all of them won.


Paterno barely had time to reflect on this when another big job opened up, that at the University of Michigan.  Certainly, he was more qualified to lead a storied but declining college program back to glory than to lead a pro team, however needy.  Paterno declined this offer as well, and Michigan hired Bo Schembechler, then the head coach at Miami University of Ohio, who had played for  Hayes at that school and been one of Hayes' Ohio State assistants.  That decision worked very well for Michigan, as Bo made them once again the Big Ten Conference's defining team.


Penn State went undefeated again in 1969, but were denied the National Championship in favor of Darrell Royal's Texas.  After this season, another opportunity opened up: The Miami Dolphins fired their first head coach, George Wilson, and offered the job to Paterno.  Why not, he'd already won a big game at the Orange Bowl, the Dolphins' home stadium.  He turned this one down, too.  The Dolphins hired outgoing Baltimore Colts head man Don Shula.  Yet again, getting turned down by Paterno turned out to be a lucky break that led a team to hire the right man.


In 1972, Paterno got another offer, from the New England Patriots.  This time, he accepted.  But he changed his mind just 3 weeks later, and went back to Penn State.  The Pats went with their second choice, Chuck Fairbanks, who had won a truckload of games at the University of Oklahoma.  This time, success only went so far: Although the Pats bcame a Playoff team, they never even got to an AFC Championship Game until well after Fairbanks was gone.


Penn State went undefeated again in 1973, led by John Cappelletti, still the school's only winner of the Heisman Trophy, but were yet again denied the National Championship, which was awarded to Ara Parseghian's Notre Dame -- who, to be fair, were ranked Number 2 and beat Number 1 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.  Whether ND or 'Bama deserved those rankings is debatable, but, given that situation, the Fighting Irish did what they had to do.


Paterno finally won National Championships in 1982 and 1986, each time as the Number 2 team defeating a Number 1 team in a bowl, and both times it was a tough task: Beating the Vince Dooley/Herschel Walker team in the 1983 Sugar Bowl, and the Jimmy Johnson/Vinny Testaverde Miami team in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl.


All those people telling us what a wonderful coach, and what a wonderful man, Joe Paterno was, finally got the official confirmation.


And we were told that Paterno did things the right way.  No recruiting scandals.  No boosters having undue influence.  No referee-abusing tirades.  No player-abusing tirades.  Not even any self-aggrandizing activities.  He was "above such lowlifes" as Woody Hayes, Bear Bryant, Jimmy Johnson and Steve Spurrier -- and, if you want to throw in basketball, Bobby Knight, Bob Huggins, Rick Pitino and John Calipari.


That's what those who knelt at the altar of Saint Joe told us.


They were wrong.


*


I hated Penn State before hating Penn State was cool.  So did a few other people.  Mostly, fans of schools whose territory he invaded to take great high school players away: New Jersey (Rutgers), New York State (Syracuse), New England (Boston College), and so on.


Joe Pa's acolytes told us we were simply bitter, and jealous of his success.  And that our coaches were not at his level.


They told us his players came, and played, the right way.  They didn't embarrass their opponents.  They didn't run up the score.  They didn't engage in off-campus shenanigans.


All of this, of course, turned out to be bullshit.  In 2008, ESPN aired a special report, looking at court records in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  (Like Massachusetts, Virginia and Kentucky, for official records Pennsylvania is a "Commonwealth" and not a "State." The difference doesn't matter here.) They discovered that 46 Penn State football players faced 163 criminal charges.  And that was just from 2002 to to 2008.  What about the 42 years before that? And that's just in the University's home State.  What about elsewhere? When they were off-campus?


But Paterno managed to keep this shit quiet for decades.  He was a conservative Republican who learned the wrong lesson from Watergate, the scandal that doomed his friend, President Richard Nixon.  Most of us learned, "Don't do things that you'll have to cover up," and "The cover-up gets you into more trouble than the crime." Instead, Paterno -- like the fabulously corrupt and unconstitutional Administration of is friend, President Ronald Reagan -- learned a different lesson: "Make sure the public doesn't know there's anything to cover up."


This came back to bite Paterno in the ass in 2011.  As far back as 1998 -- when the nation was obsessing over an entirely different sex scandal, one involving consensual acts -- Paterno knew that Jerry Sandusky, his defensive coordinator and (allegedly) his heir apparent as head coach, was engaging in decidedly unconsensual sex acts with minors.  (That the minors were of the same gender shouldn't be relevant.)


So Paterno did what high-ranking officials in the Catholic Church did when they discovered pedophile priests: Got him out of the job, but didn't get him to jail, much less out of a position where he wouldn't be molesting children anymore.


If the initial story -- that Paterno found out in 2002 and told his superiors, and that this wasn't enough -- were true, it would probably have been enough for Paterno to be coaxed into retirement.  That he was already suffering from cancer and soon died, and thus could have died before being punished with anything more than a flat-out firing for cause, means that he could have become a martyr, that he could have been determined to deserve better.


But the initial story wasn't true.  First of all, the administration at Penn State was no more Paterno's "superiors" than Dmitry Medvedev was running Russia while Vladimir Putin was sitting out a constitutional term limit.  If Graham Spanier, then president of the University, had said, "Joe, you're fired," Paterno would have said, "No, you (fill in your choice of insult).  I am Joe Fucking Paterno.  You do not fire me.  I fire you. All it takes is my word to the board, and you're out on your ass.  Seriously, who the fuck do you think you are? Who the fuck do you think you're talking to? You remember how the people of the State of Indiana turned on their university when they fired Bobby Knight? And half that State, the Purdue half, hates Knight's guts! You think there's Pitt or Temple fans in Pennsylvania who hate me? There ain't enough of them to stand in the way of the millions of Penn State fans who will stand up for me! So even if I don't tell the board to fire your ass, they'll scare you out of the job!"

You think I'm kidding? Remember the riot after Paterno was fired?

*

In June 2009, I did blog posts on My 10 Most Hated Opponents -- first players, then another one for non-players.  While Rutgers is not above the Yankees or the Devils, and now isn't even above Arsenal, on my list of favorite sports teams, for a career, for a body of work, I thought Paterno needed to be Number 1.

And I got more responses, and nastier ones, to that than to any previous blog post.  My "threesponse" got nasty responses, too.

Well, how stupid do those Paterno defenders look now? The whole world knows the truth:

Joseph Vincent Paterno was a lying criminal-shielding son of bitch.

Today, the NCAA stripped him, and his university -- and it is still his university -- of 14 years worth of victories, going back to when he first knew Sandusky was raping children.

While the University of Southern California is still under the cloud of Pete Carroll and Reggie Bush, it's not fair to say that they're still under the cloud of O.J. Simpson -- who was no longer affiliated with USC when he committed murder.

Indiana University is no longer under the cloud of Bobby Knight.  The Cincinnati Reds are far from the cloud of Pete Rose. And a World Series win without Barry Bonds, something they never got with him, have pretty much removed his cloud from the San Francisco Giants.


But no person -- not even another elderly Pennsylvania sports legend, Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics -- has been so closely linked with a sports institution as Joe Paterno was with Penn State.


What will it take to remove the stench of Paterno from the school?

A coach who actually is what we were told Paterno was: Honest, truly caring about what happened to those under his governance instead of his own image, and successful.

Which will take at least 4 years, beyond which the last Paterno recruit is gone.  It will probably take longer than that, because it's usually tough to come back from a smacking like the NCAA got (which also includes a huge fine, stripping of scholarships, and loss of TV and bowl game revenue).

The fall of the Paterno Empire is complete.  The rebuilding of Pennsylvania State University can now begin.

I only wish Paterno had lived to see this day.  Because, let's face it: From this plane of existence, we cannot prove that Hell exists, much less that he is in it.

1 comment:

JBsptfn said...

Also, Paterno was in the running for the Green Bay job in 71, but they gave it to Dan Devine instead. That job appealed to Joe the most, from what I heard, because he could have had the dual roles of coach and GM.

I agree about all this, though. And, I am a Penn State fan. I still don't agree with the Paterno worship. There are some ignorant followers out there. Paterno had more power than people realize, and he didn't try to stop what was going on.