Penn State: Board Acted Reprehensibly Toward Paterno
Lung cancer dealt the mortal wound that ended Joe Paterno’s life a week ago today at age 85.
Yet the weaselly board of trustees at Pennsylvania State University may well have extinguished Joe’s last bit of competitive zeal when it fired this heroic citizen without so much as giving him an audience to hear his side of the story.
Paterno’s career, marked by a record numbers of victories but more importantly by the nature of this man who cared mightily for the welfare and life of his players, the university he worked for and people of every stripe, was marred at the very end by the child sex abuse scandal involving Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State player and assistant coach.
Paterno’s failure to tell authorities other than the Penn State director of athletics what he had heard about an alleged rape of a young boy by Sandusky on Penn State property in 2002 led to his dismissal, as the board of trustees looked around for someone to blame and quickly zeroed in on Paterno and the university president, Graham Spanier, who was also fired by this board so intent upon saving face.
Sandusky was arrested Nov. 5, 2011, and is now charged with 50 counts of abusing young boys for years. Neither Paterno nor Spanier was charged with any crime.
While scrambling to find a villain to blame, not one of the 32 members of this Penn State board of trustees had the courage to face Paterno and tell one of the greatest coaches in the history of American athletics that they chose him as a prime scapegoat.
Instead, the board’s vice chairman, John Surma, who was hunkered down with his associates in a Penn State campus building not a mile from Paterno’s home, told him by phone without so much as a thank-you for his 61 years of exceptional service to the university.
From that day forward the Penn State board of trustees, and not Paterno, has the mark of shame that should be enough to make them all resign.
So far the only adjustment made by the board as a result of the furor this dismissal has caused was a unanimous vote to replace the board’s chairman, Steve Garban, a senior vice president for finance at Penn State; and the vice chairman, John Surma, who is CEO of United States Steel Corporation.
Karen Peetz, a vice chairman of The Bank of New York Mellon, was named chairman of the Penn State board of trustees nine days ago, and Keith Masser, a Penn State graduate and farmer, was named vice chairman.
Peetz said, “All of us, including the board, with the wisdom of hindsight, could have done things differently.” She then promised complete transparency, something totally new for Penn State authorities who are used to keeping misfortunes on campus hidden from public scrutiny out there in what has become Unhappy Valley.
It is a given that Paterno was a master of the X’s and O’s. No one could win a major college record 409 games as a head coach without that basic skill.
What truly distinguished this feisty but very intelligent kid from Flatbush in Brooklyn was that Paterno dreamed of making an impact on other people’s lives and grew to fulfill those dreams as much as humanly possible.
Not bad for someone who planned to become a lawyer as he stumbled and bumbled his way through quarterbacking the football teams at Brooklyn Prep and then at Brown University, so much so that Stanley Woodward, the famous sports editor of the New York Herald Tribune, wrote, “He can’t run and he can’t pass. All he can do is think — and win.”
Rip Engle, Paterno’s head coach at Brown, failed to convince any of his Brown assistant coaches, including Weeb Ewbank, to join him when he replaced Bob Higgins as head coach at Penn State in 1950. So Engle offered the job to his graduating quarterback, Paterno, who had already been accepted at the Boston University School of Law.
The rest is the history of a magnificent career at Penn State, including the last 46 years as head coach of the Nittany Lions, that ended tragically in a horribly scandalous episode, the likes of which never before tarnished a major college football program. But during those glory days at Penn State, Paterno became a power to be reckoned with on campus. He towered above his fellow professors (he was a tenured professor). Penn State executives and even presidents of the institution took a back seat to this man, who was the symbol to the world of everything Penn State.
The spotlight was on him for decades because of winning football games and coach Paterno’s honest athletic program that never ran afoul of NCAA regulations while graduating its football players at a much higher rate than the average major college football program.
During his last two months, while cancer was squeezing the life out of Joe, he said that he wished he had done more for those children Sandusky allegedly abused and wished he understood more about what actually did happen.
It seems so unlike Paterno to have ignored the plight of young boys being abused by someone who worked for him. We may never really know if it was ignorance on Joe’s part or simply naiveté.
Joe had a care for others and a belief in the worth of everyone he met. Each person who was touched by him came away the better for the experience.
Educated to the classics in a Jesuit high school in Brooklyn and then Brown University, Paterno might quote to you from Homer or Sophocles while listening to Verdi’s “Rigoletto” if he felt that was the best way to get his point across.
But quite often this wonderfully honest yet querulous man would turn to a saltier version of the English language to emphasize his desires, particularly on the practice field or sidelines when one of his athletes made a grievous error.
That touch of venom could also be unleashed upon those in authority at Penn State who dared to trample on Paterno’s realm of leadership, which often appeared to be a considerably wider swath of Happy Valley than just the football program.
Nevertheless, Paterno was a caring man despite the rough exterior.
Back in the 1950s when he was still an assistant to Rip Engle, Paterno and I would sit for hours in the Boalsburg Steakhouse some late August evenings as he explained to me Penn State’s prospects for the coming season. Engle did not want to spend the time so he delegated Paterno as “explainer at large” for sports reporters.
As the years went by, Joe and I would agree at times and disagree at times. But even though I was just a reporter covering the Penn State football scene many times each year, Paterno always took time to express concern about how my life was going, just as he did with anyone else he knew well.
During the late 1970s, Paterno began thinking about running for Congress in Pennsylvania’s 17th District. At the same time, I ran for and won a seat on the borough council in Sea Bright, N. J., where I lived.
Paterno, who never did run for public office, was quite interested in my small town venture into politics, and throughout my tenure he often asked how things were going in my corner of the North Jersey shoreline. It was his nature to be truly interested in such things that were part of other folks’ lives.
Everyone who knew Joe has a story to tell. We all know he made mistakes, and maybe he even had too much power at Penn State. But no one ever did more for that institution over the years than Joe did, and no one deserved what the board of trustees did to Joe.
Franco Harris, the offensive back who was one of the most famous of all of Paterno’s many all-American players, has been a very vocal critic of the actions taken by the board of trustees.
Franco said, “It’s not a Penn State sex scandal. It’s not a Penn State football sex scandal. It’s not a Joe Paterno sex scandal. It’s a Jerry Sandusky sex scandal. And what the board did was wrong.”
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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