After Sandusky trial, Paterno's legacy still unclear

Offerings at the feet of a once undisputed Beaver Stadium idol . After the publication of a leaked e-mail, controversy over Joe Paterno's actions has intensified. DAVID SWANSON / Staff photographer
Offerings at the feet of a once undisputed Beaver Stadium idol . After the publication of a leaked e-mail, controversy over Joe Paterno's actions has intensified. DAVID SWANSON / Staff photographer
Posted: July 09, 2012

Somewhere the late Joe Paterno must be anxiously pacing the sideline, frustrated that in his last great battle, a contest whose significance transcends that of any football game, he can't influence the outcome.

Now that Jerry Sandusky, his former assistant, has been tried and convicted on 45 counts of child sexual abuse, the most intriguing questions related to the scandal that continues to rock Penn State are focused on Paterno and his legacy.

Will college football's winningest coach emerge a vindicated idol? Or will he become a disgraced outcast, with a reputation transformed by the kind of damning evidence that surfaced at last month's trial?

Will Paterno and Penn State be linked happily forever? Or will events mandate a Stalinesque purge of his name and bespectacled image at the university where his teams won 409 games and two national titles in 46 years?

And beyond his personal reputation, what if any lasting harm will come to the football program and the school to which Paterno devoted 62 of his 85 years?

Those questions won't be resolved - and Paterno's proponents and detractors won't be satisfied - until former FBI Director Louis Freeh reports on his internal investigation into Penn State's handling of the Sandusky affair. According to a trustee who did not want be identified because he has no authority to discuss the issue, the Freeh report could be released this week.

Should Paterno be implicated in any wrongdoing, Penn State and the many other institutions that honored him and his accomplishments could face extremely delicate and controversial choices.

Though it might be difficult to conceive, the university could be pressured to remove his name from the library or to dismantle the Paterno statue and shrine outside Beaver Stadium. Brown University might no longer list him among its prominent alumni. And the College Football Hall of Fame, which inducted Paterno in 2007, might have to revisit its decision. (His status isn't likely in any jeopardy. A review of the organization's inductees revealed that O.J. Simpson is still a Hall of Famer.)

If those possibilities sound preposterous, remember that Pennsylvania's two U.S. senators, a Democrat and Republican who agree on virtually nothing else, teamed up to withdraw Paterno's Presidential Medal of Freedom nomination after the Sandusky scandal broke in November. This was seven months before the gruesome details of Sandusky's abuses, laid bare in his trial, dramatized the price paid by victims for the failure of Paterno and his superiors to quickly and forcefully confront Sandusky in 2001.

The opening salvo in the fight over Paterno's legacy took place in November, when students rioted to protest the coach's firing by the university's trustees. Since then it has been waged in newspapers' letters-to-the-editor sections, in bars and coffee houses, in last spring's trustee elections, and, maybe most heatedly, on the Internet.

One of three newly elected pro-Paterno trustees, Anthony Lubrano, predicted the Freeh report would have little impact on how Paterno is remembered.

"Unless there's a smoking gun, which I don't anticipate, it will have no bearing on his legacy," Lubrano said. "I think there have always been two camps when it comes to Joe: those who liked him and those who didn't. I don't think the report will change that."

At Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia whose entries are written by public contributors, the legacy of Paterno is being shaped and reshaped daily. Those who support or oppose Paterno have been busily and passionately submitting information meant to bolster their positions and undercut those of their opponents.

"We're a volunteer-run organization, so all the edits and discussions are handled by unpaid editors," said Wikipedia spokesman Jay Walsh. "In general, all new information . . . needs to include a quality, third-person reference."

The Wikipedia war is an indication that the combatants are emotionally charged as the denouement of this high-stakes drama nears. After the trial's shocking revelations and a leaked e-mail, the polarization has intensified.

One who has counseled patience is Lou Prato, a longtime Paterno friend and the former director of the university's All-Sports Museum.

"I still believe we should wait for the judicial process to be completed," Prato said. "I think there is a lot more still to be revealed."

For the moment anyway, supporters of the late coach, once the most respected man in both his sport and his state, seem to be on the defensive.

According to CNN, a recently leaked e-mail uncovered by Freeh's investigation indicated Paterno may have urged a cover-up after Mike McQueary discovered Sandusky and a young boy in a football-building shower in 2001.

Paterno's family urged that judgment be withheld until all the details of Freeh's probe can be made public.

"Someone in a position of authority is not interested in a fair or thorough investigation," Wick Sollers, the family's attorney, said of the leak last week.

The leaked 2001 e-mail seems critical. It indicates athletic director Tim Curley, after a conversation with Paterno, informed university president Graham B. Spanier that the school should confront Sandusky rather than take its concerns to authorities.

"Like all coaches, after a while, keeping your players eligible is second nature," said National Public Radio's Frank Deford, who has written glowingly about Paterno over his long sportswriting career. "When his old assistant was in trouble, that must've kicked in. If he has a legacy, that's it."

As for what everyone believed would be Paterno's most enduring legacy, Penn State's successful and never-penalized-by-the-NCAA football program, the harm being done to the university will undoubtedly trickle down - even if that impact doesn't include NCAA sanctions.

Though not having launched a formal probe of its own, the organization that regulates college sports has been collecting information on the scandal uncovered by others.

"While we are actively monitoring the various investigations, we will not interfere with those efforts," NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn said in an e-mail to The Inquirer on Friday. "The NCAA will determine whether any additional action is necessary."

Gene Marsh, an Alabama attorney who once chaired the NCAA's infractions committee, said that for the NCAA to take any action against besieged Penn State would be piling on.

"What would it accomplish?" Marsh, an attorney in Birmingham, Ala., asked on Friday. "None of what I see at Penn State, and this is not to make light of it, connects to fundamental principles of NCAA enforcement. None of what I've seen relates to student-athlete welfare at Penn State or in academic fraud or recruiting violations that provided them with a competitive advantage.

"There's very little that's not going to be fully vetted and penalized in every way during the civil and criminal litigation, or with the firings of people in athletics, so what's the point of an NCAA investigation?"

Part of the problem Penn State and others could face in dealing with Paterno's legacy is that there isn't much precedent for managing what is being termed the worst scandal in college sports history.

"Most schools resolve personnel matters like this - where maybe a coach has been involved with staff or with an athlete - privately," Marsh said. "So the extent to which there is precedent is largely unknown."

Like Paterno, legendary Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes had a reputation for winning games and also for stressing the importance of academics. But in the 1978 Gator Bowl, Hayes punched a Clemson player after a play near the sideline and soon afterward was forced to resign.

Though his behavior was roundly condemned, the incident had little impact on how Hayes is remembered.

He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1983. And after his death in 1987, Ohio State named a new athletic center for him and established a chair in his honor at its Center for International Studies.


Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068, ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @philafitz. Read his blog, "Giving 'Em Fitz," at www.philly.com/fitz

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