Vince Dooley has known Joe Paterno for nearly 50 years. “We’re friends,” Dooley said. “Not close friends, but we started out together [Dooley became Georgia's head coach in 1964; Paterno took over at Penn State in 1966] and we coached in a college all-star game in Atlanta, and we went on a lot of Nike trips together. We got to know him and his wife Sue very well.”
Dooley spoke Wednesday morning, moments after Paterno announced his intention to retire at season’s end. And the man who retired from coaching in 1988 at 56 said this of the man who kept going until age 84: “It probably was time for him to retire.”
Dooley won one national championship at Georgia. On New Year’s Day 1983, his Bulldogs were denied another title by Paterno and Penn State in the Sugar Bowl. A defense coordinated by Jerry Sandusky held Heisman winner Herschel Walker to 103 yards rushing and lifted the Nittany Lions to a 27-23 victory and their first championship. It was a breakthrough moment in Paterno’s career, a career that would see him win more games than any major collegiate coach.
And now this: A coach whose slogan was “Success With Honor” became a national flashpoint after Sandusky was arrested on charges of child sexual abuse. Said Dooley: “Two or three games before he’s going out, this comes up … It’s an unfortunate situation.”
It is. It might well be the saddest story in the history of collegiate sports. Said Dooley: “Paterno did report [an eyewitness account of Sandusky, then retired as a coach, having sex with a boy on Penn State property] it 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 of Sandusky] 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.”
Dooley: “I’m sure he was shocked [by the eyewitness account]. Maybe [Paterno] thought it was an incident and hoped it would go away, but the more you think about it, you think it probably wasn’t a one-time incident … The guy was sick.”
Penn State hasn’t yet said whether it will accede to Paterno’s desire to coach through the end of this season, a season that could yield a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl berth. Taking the longer view, Dooley said he doesn’t believe the storm over Sandusky will cheapen a Paterno legacy that once seemed pristine.
“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.”
And here we come to a thorny question: Should one failure of conscience or wisdom override a half-century of good work? Will enough time pass that the Sandusky case won’t be mentioned in the second sentence of Paterno’s biography? Will anyone ever view this demonstrably great coach in quite the same way?
Dooley believes they might. I’d disagree. (I’m of the opinion that Paterno shouldn’t be allowed to coach another game.) But I yield to Dooley in that I’ve never been a coach or an administrator at the highest level of collegiate sports, and he has. And 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.”
By Mark Bradley