|On his way out the door at Penn State, Joe Paterno acknowledged, “With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.’’ (Associated Press/joe hermitt, the patriot-news)|
Happy Valley unmasked
Facades have been shattered
Welcome to the Crisis Management Seminar.
The setting: Big-time university, set in a bucolic area with wide, tree-lined streets, a thriving downtown that has the feeling of days gone by (ice cream shops are called “creameries’’), and shops that are filled with students and townies who get along fine. Across the street is The State University, so let’s call the town State College or University Park. Call the area Happy Valley.
The participants: The main character is the football coach, who is more than that. Some call him a saint. He has been part of the university scene longer than some of the giant trees on campus that are more than 60 years old. He came to the university as a young assistant coach and never left. And he has done well, winning more games than any other major football coach in history. He is now an octogenarian, but is still viable, still working.
The incident: College football is rife with rules breaking, with scandals. So much so that when we hear of incidents at places such as Southern Cal, Ohio State, and Miami, we merely shrug. Stuff happens. It is distasteful, but we move on and we still enjoy the games.
To be truly shocked, it has to be something so disturbing, so revolting, so unbelievable that everyone will have an opinion. In this country, two issues trigger such reactions. Abuse of children and abuse of animals.
Pro quarterback Michael Vick went to jail for abusing dogs. Which leaves the abuse of children, and in this case, the sexual molestation of young boys by an assistant football coach. Not The Coach. But his top assistant. Add what looks like a coverup, and you have it all.
A ridiculous scenario, right? Not even Hollywood scriptwriters could put all of these story lines into one plot.
It has not been a good season for college football off the field. But of all the issues, nothing comes close to the events that have unfolded at Penn State the last week.
In normal times, this week would be an occasion for a celebration. A new Big Ten rival, Nebraska, would be welcomed into the family. Big game. Great atmosphere. A postcard for college football.
But when Penn State hosts Nebraska tomorrow, the buzz will be muted. Former Nittany Lions defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky has been charged with sexually abusing eight boys over a 15-year period, allegations that have rocked Happy Valley - as they should.
This is no casual incident.
“This is a case about a sexual predator who used his position within the university and community to repeatedly prey on young boys,’’ said Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly.
Under any circumstances, in any venue, the charges speak to a hideous crime. Having it happen in Happy Valley is even more shocking. It would be like a sexual predator roaming Disneyland disguised as Mickey Mouse.
Each day this week has brought new, more disturbing headlines. Penn State athletic director Tim Curley is on a leave of absence as he deals with perjury and other charges. Vice president for finance and business Gary Schultz, who also is charged with perjury, stepped down from his post.
On Wednesday, head football coach Joe Paterno, fighting to keep what was left of an image he built over 60 years, announced he was retiring, effective at the end of the season. About eight hours later, the Penn State Board of Trustees fired Joe Pa. University president Grant Spanier also lost his job.
“This is a tragedy,’’ Paterno said. “It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.’’
Yes, he should have. Much more. Many people at Penn State should have, and the consequences will be significant.
For so long, Penn State presented itself as a program that was run the right way.
A generation ago, when Penn State played Miami for the national championship in the Fiesta Bowl in Arizona, the Nittany Lions came off the team plane wearing jackets and ties and sporting polite smiles, while the Hurricanes were portrayed as renegades when they arrived in battle fatigues.
But sometimes appearances can be deceiving.
In actuality, the Penn State players had more problems internally than Miami, prompting some insiders at State College to label that year’s team “State Penn’’ instead of Penn State.
No one here is questioning Paterno’s morals or his credentials or his accomplishments. His reputation as a role model for coaches is valid. But he is not Saint Joe and Penn State is not pristine.
It has been suggested by some that the way to fix this problem is to start all over - shut down the program for a year, clean up the debris, and begin again. That’s not going to happen, because there is too much money at stake and too many other parties involved.
The coach who replaces Paterno will have to function in a radioactive zone for years. Do any parents right now want to let their sons go to Penn State? No sanctions imposed by the NCAA could have a harsher effect on a program than the judgment of parents concerned about the well-being of their children.
Paterno called it a tragedy. Yes, it is one, and while he might not have been able to prevent it, he certainly could have mitigated it with some kind of action other than passing on information.
Sadly, as much as Joe Pa accomplished, this will be part of his epitaph.
Mark Blaudschun can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.