Clock running down for Paterno

Penn State patriarch Joe Paterno leaves his home on his way to practice for the Lions' game against Nebraska this week.
Penn State patriarch Joe Paterno leaves his home on his way to practice for the Lions' game against Nebraska this week. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 09, 2011

If the circumstances were not so horrific, the reports emanating from Penn State that university officials are working to "manage the exit" of football coach Joe Paterno would actually be funny.

University officials have been doing that for more than a decade, with little success. Penn State president Graham Spanier and athletic director Tim Curley mustered their courage and went to Paterno's house in 2004 to discuss a retirement schedule and were essentially tossed onto the lawn.

The administration wanted to find a graceful way to end the Paterno era before the program that he built into a national powerhouse suffered from his unwillingness to step aside.

Well, they are a little late.

The 84-year-old Paterno told potential recruits earlier this year that he planned to be around another "three or four seasons."

The fear, naturally, was that the football itself would actually suffer as Paterno's ability to coach the team diminished. The administration certainly didn't want the cash register to stop ringing and, to a large degree, didn't want a career of exceptional accomplishment and legend to end badly.

No one outside the program could have imagined the revelations of the last few days and the degree to which Paterno's reputation would be tarnished by incidents that happened within one of the very buildings his program constructed.

It is difficult to imagine how Paterno can continue to coach this season. University president Graham Spanier canceled Paterno's weekly news conference on Tuesday when officials received word that he planned to address the allegations surrounding former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky and also planned to take questions on the matter.

One of the reasons Joe Paterno has achieved all that he has as a football coach is that he does not back down, he is confident in himself, and he is not afraid to speak his mind.

That was enough to terrify administration officials on Tuesday. What happens next? Does Paterno not talk after football games? Does he travel to the two remaining road games, at Ohio State and Wisconsin? Can he actually continue to function as the head coach?

There is no template for answering those questions because nothing like this has ever happened before. It is clear that the university thinks Paterno did something wrong, whether it was an act of commission by allowing a known sexual predator to remain on campus under the auspices of his program, or an act of omission by not exerting proper oversight of his football empire.

The blame for what happened is shared by many, not just Paterno. The coach did report the alleged 2002 child abuse in the Lasch Football Building to the athletic director. He testified to the grand jury that he believed, based on what graduate assistant Mike McQueary told him, the incident was "sexual" in nature. Despite knowing that, and presumably knowing that having sexual contact with a 10-year-old is a crime, he didn't follow up when Sandusky was not investigated by outside authorities.

Athletic director Tim Curley and senior vice president for finance and business Gary Schultz told different stories to the grand jury, with Curley characterizing his impression of the incident as "horsing around," and Schultz saying his impression was that it was "not that serious." Both are facing felony perjury charges.

Sandusky retained his "emeritus" status on campus, complete with office and access to the scene of the alleged crimes, until last Saturday. He allegedly continued to prey on children for at least another seven years after the 2002 incident. All of those victims and their families were let down by the inaction of Penn State, something that will undoubtedly result in civil lawsuits that could cost the school millions and millions of dollars.

If you wonder why the criminal defenses of Curley and Schultz are being paid by Penn State, that's why. A guilty finding, legally confirming that school officials did not properly report a crime to authorities, would touch off a financial nightmare for the school.

Getting rid of Paterno after all these years is, ironically, the easy part of this. (Muzzling him will be another matter, however.) The difficult part, and what will determine if the board of trustees is serious about the cleanup, is doing the rest of the job.

This happened on Spanier's watch and he has to go. The university president was told that Sandusky was no longer allowed to bring young boys on campus and, according to the grand jury, he approved that without further question or investigation.

Much of the superstructure of Paterno's program will also have to be disassembled. The way things have been done there, secretly and behind closed doors, has to change. The program has to be opened up to fresh air and - guess what? - plenty of schools operate that way and still win.

The board should begin an investigation that would, among other things, question all the current and former members of the campus police department it can locate to learn about every fixed parking ticket, every campus fight that went unreported, every violation that was overlooked. Among his other duties, Schultz was in charge of that police force. Why? Maybe bad police reports can be bad for finance and business.

It all has to come out, every detail of the disease that can spread when a program becomes bigger than the university. There is no turning back now.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com, read his blog at philly.com/postpatterns recent columns at philly.com/bobford and follow @bobfordsports on Twitter.

 

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