Penn State brass shows who has most clout - and it's not Paterno

Posted: November 09, 2011

IT WAS AN ACT of cowardice by top administrators at Penn State University.

Yesterday, more than 100 reporters had arrived at Penn State to hear embattled head football coach Joe Paterno speak for the first time since allegations of sexual abuse against children were brought against former Nittany Lions defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.

According to Paterno's son, Scott, the coach was prepared to answer the anticipated questions about what he knew, when he knew it, and why he chose to act in the manner he did. JoePa wasn't going to hide. According to his son, he was prepared to go into the Clemens Family Football Complex and, under the hottest glare he has ever faced, tell his side.

Then, 45 minutes before Paterno was supposed to speak, Penn State president Graham Spanier, despite years of talk to the contrary, showed who ultimately has the final say in Happy Valley.

"Due to the ongoing legal circumstances centered around the recent allegations and charges, we have determined that today's press conference cannot be held and will not be rescheduled," PSU assistant athletic director for communications Jeff Nelson read from a statement.

And in that single sentence, the myth of Paterno controlling all things at Penn State was destroyed.

I'm not sure Paterno can adequately explain away his actions, or rather lack of actions, when he was told Sandusky had been seen "acting inappropriately" with a young boy in the showers at the football facilities in 2002.

But considering the outrage concerning Paterno's moral obligation to have done more than just report the incident up the change of command, he deserved to opportunity to present his side - which he apparently wanted to.

Spanier, through his directive to cancel the news conference, squelched that chance and, in a real sense, hung Paterno out to dry in hurricane-force winds.

The discussion won't stop; in fact, since so many reporters had trekked to Penn State for this media conference, it is likely to intensify. Paterno doesn't get a chance to present his case.

It is natural to think Spanier was afraid of what Paterno might say.

On Monday, a Penn State spokesman wrote a note saying, "Media planning to attend Tuesday's Penn State Football weekly teleconference are advised that the primary focus of the teleconference is to answer questions related to Penn State's Senior Day game with Nebraska this Saturday."

It was going to be circling the wagons, close ranks, control the message.

That's been Penn State's modus operandi for decades under Paterno, and it's been successful. But apparently, Spanier feared Paterno was going to do things his way.

That might have worked in Paterno's favor, but not necessarily in favor of the university.

There are serious charges connected to Penn State: A former coach has been accused of committing deviant sex acts against young boys on the campus grounds . . . The athletic director and the vice president for finance and business have been accused of committing perjury to a grand jury investigating a child molestation case.

The mother of one of the victims already told the Patriot-News of Harrisburg that Penn State could have acted to prevent the abuse.

Spanier has to know that, at some point, after the legal case is done, a host of civil suits against PSU are sitting on the horizon. The last thing Penn State needed were words from an emotional and likely combative Paterno coming back later to haunt them.

Spanier knew he couldn't adequately control the message that would come from Paterno, so he did the next best thing:

He muted it.

It was a cowardly act that was geared more toward protecting the university than considering the victims. Still, it was probably the correct legal maneuver.

Now you can't help but wonder whether a larger process is at work. You can't help but wonder whether Penn State finally has the chutzpah to end Paterno's 46-year reign as head coach.

The New York Times quoted sources as saying Paterno's time could end "within days or weeks" as university officials already are working out an exit plan.

Of course, it's possible.

I was a student at the University of Maryland in 1986 when the cocaine-induced death of basketball star Len Bias brought down the tenure of once bulletproof coach Charles "Lefty" Driesell, who had as much chops at Maryland as Paterno has at Penn State.

This scandal at Penn State goes way beyond the scope of almost anything we've seen in collegiate athletics. At some point, heads will roll, and one of them could be wearing thick eyeglasses.

JoePa wanted to "say it wasn't so," but Penn State told him, "No."

None of the old rules applies. Anything is possible.


Send email to smallwj@phillynews.com. For recent columns, go to www.philly.com/Smallwood.

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