The final day of Joe Paterno’s career was different from every other one: Somebody finally said no to him.
After a dizzying few days that saw Penn State become engulfed in a sex abuse scandal that will linger for years in criminal and civil cases, the Penn State Board of Trustees ousted Paterno as head coach and university president Graham Spanier following an emergency meeting Wednesday night.
The stunning firing of Paterno came only hours after the 85-year-old coach had announced he would retire — apparently without any approval from school officials — at the end of the season. But that would have created a circus atmosphere, beginning with Saturday’s final home game against Nebraska, that the board apparently didn’t want.
This story has moved at a dizzying pace. It’s going to take a while to digest. But nobody could have anticipated that Paterno, one of the legends of the college coaching profession, somebody who has long been known for acting with honor and character, would see his career come to such a startling ending, amid one of the biggest scandals in history.
The unraveling of a 61-year career at Penn State (46 years as head coach) began last Saturday with the news of a Pennsylvania attorney general bringing sex abuse charges against one of Paterno’s former coaches, defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. Two other university officials were charged with perjury, leading to the wide-spread belief of a possible coverup.
Eight victims were identified in the Pennsylvania grand jury’s finding of fact. But it has been reported that number could approach 20. There have been suggestions of a massive coverup by Penn State. Several people have drawn parallels between this and the sex abuse scandals of the Roman Catholic Church.
Paterno has not been charged with any crime. He reported the only allegation known to have been brought to him in 2002, when a then-graduate assistant witnessed Sandusky with a boy of about 10 years old in the showers in the Penn State locker rooms. But Paterno’s failure to follow up on the matter with school officials or university police, along with Sandusky being afforded access to athletic facilities and at office at Penn State in retirement, led many to conclude Paterno did not fulfill his moral obligations and may have been complicit in a coverup. Paterno supporters have screamed that there has been a rush to judgement.
Regardless, this is not the way anybody anticipated Paterno would go out.
Only Wednesday morning did Paterno finally release a statement expressing regret for not following up on the allegations against Sandusky. (”This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”)
He announced his retirement, effective at the end of the season. But he did so on his own, without any suggestion from school’s officials that he would be allowed to do so, and as John Surma, the board’s chairman and CEO, said Wednesday night: “In our view, we thought a change now was necessary. To allow this process to continue we thought would be damaging so we took the actions that we did.”
Unfortunately, the damage started back in at least 1998, when Sandusky first was charged. But the matter was dropped and buried. If school officials had acted differently back then, and certainly if Paterno and others had been more diligent in 2002, this ugly ending would never have occurred.
For those who missed Paterno’s statement earlier Wednesday when he announced his intention to retire after the season, here it is again:
“I am absolutely devastated by the developments in this case. I grieve for the children and their families, and I pray for their comfort and relief.
“I have come to work every day for the last 61 years with one clear goal in mind: To serve the best interests of this university and the young men who have been entrusted to my care. I have the same goal today.
“That’s why I have decided to announce my retirement effective at the end of this season. At this moment the Board of Trustees should not spend a single minute discussing my status. They have far more important matters to address. I want to make this as easy for them as I possibly can. This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.
“My goals now are to keep my commitments to my players and staff and finish the season with dignity and determination. And then I will spend the rest of my life doing everything I can to help this University.”
By Jeff Schultz