Even at the bitter end, Joe Paterno wanted to choose the time of his leaving. His letter of impending-at-season’s-end resignation, offered earlier Wednesday, included this virtual dare to those who were technically his superiors: “At this moment the Board of Trustees should not spend a single minute discussing my status.”
Twelve hours later, Penn State’s Board of Trustees took his dare. The man who’d worked at the university since 1950 — Richard Nixon, who would as President of these United States incur Paterno’s wrath by declaring Texas and not Paterno’s undefeated Nittany Lions the best college football team of 1969, was then a freshman Senator from California — will coach no more.
Joe Paterno made it through 45 full seasons as head coach, but he’s out, at age 84, with three regular-season games remaining in the 46th. We can and will debate for years whether this was the right course for Paterno, but at this overheated moment it seemed the only tenable course for Penn State.
Much earlier in the day, former Georgia coach Vince Dooley — who has known Paterno for nearly half a century and who considers him a friend — had said: “Two or three games before he’s going out, this comes up … It’s an unfortunate situation.”
It is. It’s the saddest and sickest story in the history of intercollegiate sports. The arrest of longtime Paterno assistant Jerry Sandusky on charges of sexually abusing children has, in the span of five days, done what neither age nor outside pressure could do — it dislodged the winningest coach in major-college history from his job.
It wasn’t that Paterno knew about Sandusky and did nothing. In 2002 he reported an eyewitness account of Sandusky, who by then had retired from coaching, sexually assaulting a boy on Penn State property. The bigger issue had become: Did Paterno do enough? Why, when there appeared to be no follow-through regarding an investigation, didn’t he call the police himself? Why was Sandusky allowed to retain emeritus status at the university?
At a place where it has lately appeared no one was in charge, the man who’d come to symbolize Penn State — “Success With Honor” was Paterno’s credo — has taken the hardest fall. But what was the alternative? To allow Paterno to lead his team onto the field Saturday for a game against Nebraska? To again stand as the representative of the Penn State Way? To turn a college football game into an international forum on the horrors of sexual abuse?
As Dooley, whose Bulldogs had lost to Paterno’s Penn State on Jan. 1, 1983, in a game for the national championship, said: “Paterno did report [the eyewitness account] to the AD. From a legal standpoint, they’ve said they’re not going to prosecute or indict [Paterno] or whatever. But as people began to think about it, they felt he should have pushed [the investigation] more.”
Then: “I’m sure he wishes he had pushed it more … It was obviously a mistake in judgment.”
Sure enough, Paterno said in the statement announcing his plan to retire: “With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”
By then, the damage to Paterno’s reputation was so severe that remorse couldn’t save it. The only way out was for Joe to go now. But now we ask: Can time and distance repair a legacy that, as late as a week ago, was considered pristine?
Taking the broader view, Dooley had said: “In long run, I don’t think it’s going to affect him. It will be talked about and written about and people will second-guess him, but there has been too much strength over the long haul. Time will pass.”
Dooley on Paterno himself: “I’ve always thought of him as an upright, honest person. I still think that of him.”
When I mentioned that Penn State football had often been held up as the model football program, Dooley corrected me. “There is no perfect program,” he said. “There never will be.”
We cannot know tonight how history will remember Joe Paterno. As a good man who looked the wrong way at the worst possible moment? As a self-absorbed coach who, sensing that his legacy might be at stake, took the path of least resistance? As a human being, possessed of strengths and weaknesses like all human beings?
There are no perfect programs, Dooley said, and this astonishing saga has reminded us that there no are no perfect human beings. Contrary to its billing, Penn State was no Happy Valley — just another vale of tears.
By Mark Bradley