Not the way Paterno was supposed to go

Posted: November 10, 2011

IT WAS NOT supposed to end like this for Joe Paterno.

It was not supposed to end with one of the true legends of coaching having his once-pristine reputation fall farther and faster than any other Hall of Famer whose stature was larger than life.

But late last night, Penn State's Board of Trustees announced that Paterno has coached his final game, bringing a stunning end to his 46-year reign and his 62-year run on the coaching staff.

Yesterday morning, Paterno had released a statement announcing he would step down at the end of the season - three games and a bowl appearance. But the Board of Trustees acted promptly, informing Paterno by phone that he was finished, then announcing that defensive coordinator Tom Bradley will be the interim coach for the Nittany Lions' home finale against Nebraska on Saturday, and that president Graham Spanier was stepping down.

After releasing his statement yesterday morning, the 84-year-old Paterno made a tearful address to the 100-plus members of his 46th Penn State football team. It came 4 days after the state's attorney general indicted former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky on charges of child sex abuse, and charged athletic director Tim Curley and senior vice president Gary Schultz with a cover-up and lying to a grand jury.

Oh, sure, the players had an idea of what was coming, given the scandal's wall-to-wall media coverage and text messages to announce the meeting, but hearing the words were nonetheless something of a shock. Less than 2 weeks ago, they were all exulting in Paterno's 409th victory, which made him the winningest coach in Division I history.

"That was probably the first time I ever saw him cry, and I actually got teary eyes myself," fifth-year senior linebacker Nate Stupar, a State College native who grew up wanting to play for Paterno, just as his father and uncles had, said of the team meeting unlike any in the history of the school. "Penn State is in my blood. It's just hard to see a huge, key person of Penn State go like this."

Coaching rivals were feeling much the same.

"My thoughts are like everyone else's in the country,'' said South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who went up against Paterno when he coach at Florida. "It is one of the saddest, most tragic series of events we've ever seen . . . He's a good friend, and I admire everything he's ever done in the coaching profession."

No one ever associated with Penn State was more huge or more key than Joseph Vincent Paterno, who arrived on campus in 1950 as a 23-year-old Brown University graduate whose idea was to spend a couple of seasons as an assistant on Rip Engle's staff while he earned enough money to attend law school.

But Paterno never left, and in his 62 years in Happy Valley he became not only a successful coach, but an ambassador for his university and a symbol of all that college sports are supposed to be, but often aren't. He contributed more than $4 million to Penn State's general fund, which is why the names of he and his wife, Sue, are on the library instead of any of the athletic facilities that he also was widely responsible for expanding and enhancing.

Paterno stressed academics, which is a large reason why Penn State, in the 2009 graduation rates report for Division I institutions, compiled an 89 percent graduation rate among freshmen entering in 2002-03. That was No. 1 among teams ranked in the 2009 final Associated Press poll. Penn State's figure was a whopping 34 percentage points above the FBS average. Paterno didn't hesitate to sit down a player, even a starter, if he didn't attend class and keep up his grades, and he mentored his players in ways that went beyond X's and O's.

And in the early 1970s, he passed up an opportunity for a big payday when he turned down an offer to coach the New England Patriots.

"Playing for Joe Paterno is the greatest thing that happened to me in my 22 years of living," said Chima Okoli, a fifth-year senior offensive lineman whose love for and support of JoePa remains unconditional. "The lessons you learn . . . it will make you a better son, a better father. The importance of how he shapes people with integrity cannot be overstated."

But all that character-building only counts for so much in big-time college football, noted St. John's (Minn.) University coach John Gagliardi, 85, the only man with more career victories than his fellow octogenarian.

"Joe has done it the right way, so much so that he's really the gold standard of coaches," Gagliardi said last year, upon the occasion of Paterno joining the ultra-exclusive 400-win club. "But it's not enough to graduate your players and be a model of integrity. At that level, you've got to win, too."

Paterno won, all right. But his contributions to Penn State consisted of so much more than a lot of W's: During his tenure he not only won two national championships (1982 and '86), posted five undefeated seasons, guided the Lions to 23 Top-10 finishes in the national rankings and a 24-12-1 bowl record, but he generated untold millions of dollars for the university endowment and is mainly responsible for nearly tripling the seating capacity of Beaver Stadium, to 106,572. On game days, Beaver Stadium is the third-largest "city" in Pennsylvania.

For himself, Paterno never courted honors, but they nonetheless came his way. In 2007, he was inducted into the National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame, one of only three active coaches ever to be so recognized. He has been named AFCA Coach of the Year an unprecedented five times. Just last January, he was presented the Gerald R. Ford Award at the NCAA convention, which salutes an individual who has provided "significant leadership as an advocate for intercollegiate athletics on a continuous basis throughout his career."

In a 2005 address on the Penn State campus, President Bush said of JoePa, "There's no more decent fellow on the face of the Earth. What a man, who sets high standards, loves his family, loves this university, loves his country. And my mother and dad love him."

So how is it that this paragon of virtue, this role model to so many young and not-so-young people, was brought down by the taint of something as vile and repugnant as pedophilia?

Curley and Schultz, facing perjury charges, were the first university casualties of the Sandusky scandal. Spanier is finished. And Paterno is out, under circumstances his many supporters never could have imagined when they elevated him to the status of "Saint Joe."

The 23-page report released by attorney general Linda Kelly absolves Paterno of any wrongdoing because he relayed an eyewitness report of one of Sandusky's alleged crimes to his immediate superior, Curley, in 2002. By doing so, JoePa did not meet the legal standard for culpability when Curley failed to bring the matter to the attention of law-enforcement agencies.

But Curley is the same guy who, along with Spanier, was rebuffed when they went to Paterno's State College residence after the 2004 season, during which Penn State had its fourth losing record in 5 years, to seek his resignation - and were basically told to take a hike. No one in the university's athletic hierarchy, or in any capacity for that matter, carried more clout than Paterno.

Logic dictates that Paterno felt some sort of obligation toward his friend, Sandusky, the defensive coordinator of his national championship teams.

If that turns out to be the case, it was a monumental error in judgment.

"The idea that Joe Paterno could be forced out of Penn State on moral grounds defies belief," wrote Ivan Maisel, of ESPN.com. "Paterno helped build Penn State into one of the most recognizable universities in the country. More than six decades of achievement, an entire adult life committed to the advancement of the core mission of his university, could not withstand the sin of omission commited by Paterno in the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse case. It is not something that Paterno did that brought him to this fate. It is something that he did not do to stop Sandusky."

Those who revere Paterno, of course, prefer to view him as the hero he always was and still would be if Sandusky somehow could be removed from the equation.

"When you're on campus, when you find out what Joe is all about, you feel it," former Penn State wide receiver Rich Mauti said earlier this year of the magnetism of Paterno's personality that made Penn State so alluring for so long to recruits. "Do other schools have [someone like] that? Maybe a few. It can't be many.

"But I tell you what: No place else has a Joe Paterno. He's the last of his kind."

JoePa was that, all right. But no one lives, or coaches, forever. All good things must come to an end.

And, one can only hope, some very bad things, too.

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