For the past seven months, Joe Paterno’s legacy in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal has been hotly debated by critics and advocates. Sandusky, who was Paterno’s trusted defensive coordinator and helped him win two national championships, was convicted on 45 criminal charges last month after an emotional trial, in which eight men testified he abused them as boys.
We’ve heard from former players, coaches, administrators and lawyers. In recent weeks, leaks and statements from those involved in the case have sought to paint parts of the story. But it seemed that when major college football’s all-time winningest coach passed away from lung cancer in January, Paterno’s side of the story might have died with him.
On Wednesday, a 7-month-old letter surfaced, in which the late coach defended his actions and his program. The Paterno family said the coach dictated the letter shortly before his death. In the letter, Paterno said his former assistant’s actions were in no way a “football scandal.”
“Specifically, I feel compelled to say, in no uncertain terms, that this is not a football scandal,” Paterno wrote in the letter. “Let me say that again so I am not misunderstood: regardless of anyone's opinion of my actions or the actions of the handful of administration officials in this matter, the fact is nothing alleged is an indictment of football or evidence that the spectacular collections of accomplishments by dedicated student athletes should be in anyway tarnished.
“Yet, over and over again, I have heard Penn State officials decrying the influence of football and have heard such ignorant comments like Penn State will no longer be a ‘football factory’ and we are going to ‘start’ focusing on integrity in athletics. These statements are simply unsupported by the five decades of evidence to the contrary -- and succeed only in unfairly besmirching both a great university and the players and alumni of the football program who have given of themselves to help make it great.”
Many former Nittany Lions players have defended Paterno from the start, saying he properly notified Penn State vice president Gary Schultz and athletics director Tim Curley when he learned of Sandusky’s alleged abuse in 2002. Former Penn State assistant Mike McQueary testified during Sandusky’s trial that he witnessed him sexually assaulting a boy, believed to be about 10 years old, in the showers of Penn State’s football complex.
But others have criticized Paterno for not doing more than notifying Curley and Schultz, and for allowing Sandusky to continue to have access to Penn State’s football facility.
Penn State fans and the rest of the college football world will begin to learn on Thursday what role, if any, iconic coach Joe Paterno had in the school’s handling of Sandusky when a group led by former FBI director Louis Freeh releases its independent report of the university’s handling of the scandal.
Freeh’s report, which will be released at 9 a.m. ET on Thursday, might go a long way in determining what Paterno’s lasting legacy will ultimately be. As Penn State’s coach, Paterno trumpeted his “Grand Experiment,” in which he believed the Nittany Lions could excel on the football field as well as in the classroom. During his tenure at Penn State, which lasted more than five decades as an assistant and head coach, Paterno’s family donated more than $4 million to the school, helping fund scholarships, faculty positions and the construction of a library that bears his name.
Freeh’s report will begin to tell us if Paterno and others could have done more.