Yesterday, a friend who knows I’m from Pennsylvania asked me to explain what this Penn State football scandal really meant. She understood the basics—a former assistant coach molested children and Joe Paterno and a lot of other leaders at the school not only knew about it, but covered it up. Now, the school was being punished. But, why all the fuss? Famous people fall from grace all the time.
I’d thought I’d use this space to try to explain what Joe Paterno meant to millions of people in Pennsylvania and why, even though Jerry Sandusky—the assistant coach who committed the horrific acts—is in jail, it is the legacy of Joe Paterno that is discussed the most.
When I was in seventh grade, Joe Paterno came to visit our school. Back then, all the kids from grades 7-12 were in the same building and Paterno was recruiting the star player of our football team. Paterno arrived via helicopter, which landed in front of a massive, empty field in front of the building. Imagine for a moment if such an arrival occurred today. By the time the chopper alighted and Paterno was inside the school, video of his landing would already be posted on YouTube. In the comments section, one faction would upbraid Paterno for creating such a fuss, while another would congratulate him for doing whatever it took to land a top recruit (nuance rarely makes its way into our discourse these days).
Anyway, Paterno addressed our entire student body and took questions from students. (Sample: How do I play football for Penn State? Answer: Listen to your parents, teachers and coaches and make sure no one works harder than you. NOTE: In middle school, you don’t yet realize that being the best athlete in your neighborhood doesn’t assure you a spot on Coach Paterno’s squad, so his comments gave many of us hope, if only for a while).
The player Paterno was recruiting from our school went to Penn State, of course. But after Paterno left, the aura from his visit lasted for weeks. We felt like the President had visited us. It was better than that actually, because Joe Paterno was more popular than any politician and known to every sentient adult in the entire state of Pennsylvania.
Dozens, if not hundreds, of times over the course of his career, Paterno replicated the scene like the one at our tiny little school in the middle of nowhere in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
For a very long time, there was no one bigger in Pennsylvania than Joe Paterno. It didn’t get that way by accident.
To someone who did not live or spend long stretches of time in Pennsylvania it may be hard to comprehend how a football coach could achieve such stature. There are plenty of great coaches, after all.
Look at Urban Meyer. He could very well be the most famous college football coach in the country. But he would have to coach thirty more years to match Paterno’s longevity. And do it with the same school. Meyer is already on his fourth school.
The only coach who could conceivably match Paterno, is Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski. But he would have to coach another fourteen years to have lasted as long as Paterno.
There have been other great coaches and other college football dynasties, but they all achieved legendary status at the expense of and thanks to a rival. Alabama had Auburn. Oklahoma had Nebraska. USC had Notre Dame, and vice versa. Miami had Florida State. Penn State had no foil. It was just Joe.
On the sidelines, Paterno outlasted Bear Bryant, Bo Schembechler, Woody Hayes and Bobby Bowden—all of whom had archrivals. In the case of Schembechler and Hayes the rivals were each other. Yes, Bryant achieved a similar statewide status in his home state as Paterno did in his. But Alabama is a fraction the size of Pennsylvania and not close to any major media markets.
For a while in the 1970s and 80s, Penn State’s rivalry with Pitt was heated. The rivalry was more important to Pitt than it was to Penn State. Pitt’s fan base was limited to the western part of Pennsylvania, while Penn State had committed fans in every nook and cranny of a very large state. Furthermore, the schools haven’t played since 2000.
Prior to joining the Big 10, Penn State was constantly being pestered to form a mega-conference with neighboring schools like Pitt, Syracuse and West Virginia and other schools that eventually joined the Big East. But Paterno saw no benefit to such an alliance. To be in the same league with those schools would grant them an equanimity that they had not earned and they could potentially take away recruits. So Penn State stayed independent. When they finally joined the Big 10 in the early 1990s they were easternmost school in the league (and still are).
In addition to creating a space for Penn State in the grand scheme of intercollegiate athletics and blunting any threat to his position as king of the football hill, Paterno expertly cultivated his public image.
Penn State fans were proud that Paterno went to an Ivy League university. He wasn’t some redneck who added syllables to the word “athlete” or always dropped the “g” from participles. His image—the tie and collared shirt, the studious glasses, the high-water pants, the black shoes, —told people that this was no meathead jock. He could do other things besides coach football, whereas that was probably not the case with his opposite number.
Given his success and influence, Paterno could have been expected to be arrogant (think of some of today’s top coaches), but, publically anyway, he was far from it. He could accurately be described as magnanimous.
In his weekly press conference with the media, Paterno always found something good to say about the upcoming opponent, even if it had just lost 59-0 and was now 0-6 on the year.
As has been noted elsewhere, he walked home after games at Beaver Stadium, fully accessible to fans. His donated a library on the Penn State campus. The stories of his commitment to charitable causes are legion.
But the best example of Paterno’s graciousness may have been his weekly appearances on a radio call-in show. This was not your typical coach’s show where the coach and a smooth-talking host hung out at a sports-themed restaurant, traded gags and looked back at last week’s game and looked ahead to the next opponent. There was the review and preview aspect to Paterno’s show to be sure, but for the better part of two hours, Paterno took phone calls from fans.
Paterno was unfailingly polite in these sessions. When Ed from Hunlock Creek would call in and ask a question, Paterno would talk about the last time he drove through the tiny hamlet.
When Mike from Shamokin criticized Paterno for his conservative offensive approach (a common complaint) or wonder why so-and-so wasn’t playing more (next most popular complaint) the coach would disarm him with a story about a player he recruited from Shamokin back in 1971, a player that Mike had probably watched time and again in his glory days on the high school gridiron.
And when Phyllis from Meadville would call in to thank Coach for the wonderful job he was doing with “our boys,” but also ask a fairly rudimentary football question, Joe would thank Phyllis for the question, ask her to say “hello” to his old pal and former Meadville mayor Dave Smith and then, with the patience of an elementary school teacher explain, “Well Phyllis, the reason why we didn’t attempt a field goal in that situation was because our kicker’s longest field goal of the year is 40 yards and if we had tried a field goal there it would have been over 60 yards into the wind. So, we thought that maybe we should punt it way and maybe our defense could hold them deep inside their own territory. Then when we got the ball back, we’d be in a position to get a touchdown and not just a field goal.”
Then there would be a pause and Paterno would ask, “Do you see what I’m saying Phyllis?” And Phyllis, who had been saying “oh” and “uh-huh” while Paterno was explaining his strategy, would realize that Joe Paterno, Head Football Coach at Penn State University, was seeking her approval on a football matter and would regress into a giggling school girl and say, between titters,” Yes, coach. I understand. Good luck on Saturday.”
Paterno said “we” and “us” a lot. The implication was clear to the fans. This was their team, too and they ought to feel fully invested. It was both genius and genuine.
Being the King of Pennsylvania was a boon for Paterno on the recruiting trail. For much of his tenure, Pennsylvania was one of the four or five best high school football factories in the country (it is probably on bottom edge of the top 10 now). Which meant that Paterno had quick access—just a short helicopter ride away—to some top-flight talent.
This also meant that when people in Pennsylvania rooted for Penn State, they were quite literally rooting for “our” kids.
Paterno was at his peak in the 1980s, when he guided the Nittany Lions to two national championships. I was not a Penn State fan, but it was impossible not to root for them, these were “our kids” after all.
After the championships, Paterno was a full-on deity. Penn State football was part of the fabric of living in Pennsylvania. Later, when I went to Penn State for a couple of years I had a chance to see the loom of the fabric up close. The massive concrete bowl (Beaver Stadium) that housed 100,000 fans. The acres and acres of RVs that arrived on Wednesday, whose owners drank, ate and shopped until kickoff on Saturday. The realization that there were tens of thousands of people, who quite literally constructed their lives around Penn State Football, whose leader was Joe Paterno. It was while I was at Penn State that I began to consider the possibility that all of this seemed a bit much. It’s just football, I thought. In this regard I was (and still am) in the distinct minority. By then, Penn State football fans had a smugness that made them virtually unbearable and among PSU supporters, I never raised the topic of their fandom or of Paterno.
When Penn State joined the Big Ten in the early 1990s Paterno was now JoePa, with the emphasis on the “Pa.” He was not just a coach or a football legend anymore, he was the state’s de facto grandfather.
Once in the Big Ten, Penn State had one great season—in 1994, when the team went unbeaten—but has settled into second-class citizenry in the conference behind Ohio State, Wisconsin and, lately, Michigan State. There were occasional bursts of excellence, like in 2005 when it posted an 11-1 record. The five years before that, however, saw a combined record of 26-33. The irony is that while the football program has gone backward, other sports at Penn State have thrived.
In the 1990s Paterno slowly released his grip on the day-to-day management of the program, a fact that was brought out as information about the horrors Sandusky committed became public. Paterno was more concerned about maintaining the status and image of the program he had worked so hard to construct than in recruiting players who could improve upon it.
On the field, the game had passed Paterno by. Before, Paterno could recruit big, strong kids who grew up on farms in Pennsylvania and in the neighboring states. They could be taught the proper technique and develop into winning players. That was not enough anymore. In states like Georgia, Florida and Texas there were scores of players who were not only big, but also fast and they could be coached in the proper technique. And they had no interest in going to play in the cold of Pennsylvania. Paterno’s failure to understand how the landscape of college football had changed is evident even in his final team, where only seven (out of 96) players were from the Carolinas and on south.
The Paterno legacy was decades in the making. And now, it’s all been undone, and though it might seem so, it did not fall apart in the blink of an eye.
When the Sandusky scandal broke, I was staunch in the belief that Penn State football should be given the Death Penalty by the NCAA, which is to say it should be prohibited from fielding a football team this year.
Scandals have become the norm in big-time college sports. They happen so often now that they are impossible to keep track. Rarely do they leak into the criminal realm, but the fact is, that if Joe Paterno were still alive he would likely be facing a jury to explain why he let Jerry Sandusky stay on campus after he knew he molested children. There were no bigger names in college sports than Joe Paterno. He was not just respected. He was revered. It is quite simply impossible to imagine a more profound betrayal.
The NCAA’s response to the Paterno betrayal was actually much harsher than the Death Penalty. The sanctions levied ($60 million fine, reduced scholarships, no bowl games) virtually assure that Penn State will not be a football power any time soon and will not even be competitive for the next decade. From a legacy of dignity and excellence, Penn State has now been fated to a future of shame and mediocrity.
I don’t have children, but at this stage I cant conceive of how any parent could let their child believe that someone who has acquired fame or wealth through athletics is anything other than a person who happens to possess an extremely rare and coveted skill, with the possession of said skill completely incidental to it’s owner’s sense of decency.
My hope is that the Penn State tragedy, which exceeds even Shakespearean proportions, will finally administer to the public the truth that success as a professional athlete or coach means only that the person is a successful athlete or coach and that no other character traits should be inferred from this fact.