Long before then, and we're talking even before Penn State became a Big Ten school in 1990, Paterno had little patience or concern for investigations of any kind, for one overriding reason: There weren't any. He was the law, and his law was tougher on his kids than any other. He lived near the campus, exercised Marine-like discipline. He threw the rare repeat offenders off the team. He made sure his kids went to class years before the NCAA laid down layer upon layer of rules that attempted to get other schools and other coaches to be like Joe.
Indeed, it is a stark and incredible irony to read Barry Switzer, now one of the countless ESPN sages, offering his analysis of Paterno's missteps leading up to and including the sordid Jerry Sandusky matter. For those of you too young to know, Switzer's Oklahoma teams of the 1970s and 1980s were among the inspirations for the NCAA's overdue efforts to rein in big-time college sports. There was this time, back when I covered Penn State and later the University of Virginia, when Switzer and Paterno were widely viewed as college football's Goofus and Gallant, in that order.
Paterno's players dressed well to and from games, spoke politely and stayed out of trouble - as far as anyone knew. Most graduated, many became successful, all were lifetime members of a fraternity more real than the color on Joe's 84-year-old head. Switzer? He told Sports Illustrated in a 1989 story that, "We don't inhibit, muzzle or restrict our players." They did in State College, and they did in Charlottesville, where Paterno's protégé, George Welsh, coached. I was stunned on my one and only trip to Norman, Okla., to find that Barry and his players were not only available on a Friday afternoon before a Saturday game with North Carolina, they stayed around as long as you liked.
Even then, and we're talking mid- to late '80s, Joe had control, treated media that had something to do with making Penn State the hometown college for many Northeastern states as if we were as seedy as what one of his coaches from back then is now accused of being. Back then, programs such as Boston College, West Virginia, Rutgers, Temple and, yes, Virginia seemed to exist mainly so the Nittany Lions could find their footing before taking on heavyweights such as Notre Dame and Alabama. Programs such as Connecticut didn't exist, at least on a level that worried anyone in Happy Valley.
Back then, a younger Joe and his assistants - including Sandusky - could go into any New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut or even Virginia home and have a better than 50 percent chance of bringing that kid to State College.
But as yesterday's Wall Street Journal story suggests, absolute power eventually corrupts even the best intentioned. And age gets the better of all of us, eventually. As any connected alum will tell you, Paterno's continuance as head football coach was debated annually by a split and conflicted board of trustees, his survival over the last two decades as much a reflection of the money he could bring in from donors as it was success on the field.
Any review of how the Sandusky affair got so swept away by so many should never underestimate that. More than any other university with a major football program, Penn State's coach called the shots. When Paterno took over as head coach in 1966, the football stadium held a little more than 48,000 fans. Today, only Michigan's Big House seats more than the 106,572 capacity of Beaver Stadium.
Perhaps the danger of absolute power multiplies with advanced age. Perhaps Paterno, like my 84-year-old father and, I suspect, yours, became even more obstinate and headstrong as he progressed through his 70s and into his 80s. He often argued that it was neither, that he was just able to hide his players' misdeeds in a simpler, less magnified time.
I have no doubt there were drinking issues and a fight or two back then, but I doubt even a younger Joe could have kept some of the misdeeds of the last decade quiet. Rape allegations, a huge brawl initiated by a big chunk of his defense that left one student critically injured. By reputation, that younger Joe Paterno would have said, "See ya."
What changed? His age, certainly. Maybe Joe didn't know his recruits as well as he once did, didn't get to meet and judge the families as much before deciding whom to offer a free ride. The Big Ten's unforgiving schedule, maybe the increased competition for players from those upstart East Coast programs eroded things, too.
But in the end, Joe got Joe. He bent. He broke. He looked the other way. Gallant became more like Goofus. And the school he spent his adult life building into a place beyond reproach now feels the scorn of a nation.
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