Joe Paterno failed his biggest decision

Originally Published: November 9, 2011
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

Penn State fired a coach who won 409 games, more than any other coach in Division I college football history.

Penn State fired a coach whose family donated more than $4 million to the university, helping fund scholarships, faculty positions and the construction of a library that bears his name.

Penn State fired a coach who was never accused by the NCAA of breaking its rules in 46 seasons, and whose players seemingly always graduated, fostering a belief that the Nittany Lions always did things the right way, even as other major college football programs' reputations were sullied by salacious scandals involving academic fraud and illegal booster benefits.

On Wednesday night, Penn State's board of trustees fired legendary football coach Joe Paterno -- effectively immediately -- because it was the only decision it could make.

[+] EnlargeJoe Paterno
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarPenn State's Joe Paterno did not ride off into the sunset on his own terms.

"We thought that because of the difficulties that engulfed our university -- and they are great -- it was necessary for us to make a change in the leadership and to set a course for new direction," said Penn State board of trustees vice chairman John Surma, chairman and CEO of U.S. Steel. "The university is much larger than its athletic programs."

Finally, adults with backbones and courage made a prudent decision at Penn State.

Paterno was fired because he failed miserably while making the biggest decision of his life.

Told by a graduate assistant in 2002 that former Nittany Lions defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky had sexually assaulted a boy, believed to be 10 years old, in the showers of Penn State's football complex, Paterno did nothing more than inform athletic director Tim Curley and university vice president Gary Schultz of the allegation. Paterno never personally called police. His son, Scott Paterno, told the Philadelphia Inquirer on Wednesday that his father never even asked Sandusky -- his assistant coach for three decades and who was once considered his heir apparent -- about the incident.

Penn State president Graham Spanier also was fired immediately. Curley took a leave of absence and Schultz retired earlier this week, after they were charged with perjury for lying to a grand jury and failing to report the alleged crime.

Sandusky, who faces 40 criminal counts involving the sexual assaults of eight boys over a 15-year period, has denied the charges.

Paterno, 84, had tried to strong-arm Penn State officials one last time Wednesday morning, announcing that he would retire at the end of the season. Paterno, who had coached for the Nittany Lions since 1950 and worked as their head coach since 1966, was bound and determined to go out on his own terms.

Over the past few days, the fallout of the chilling tragedy seemed to focus more on its effect on Paterno's legacy than the victims themselves.

In a statement released by his family on Wednesday morning, Paterno said he would finally step aside after coaching the No. 12 Nittany Lions in their last three-regular season games and then potentially in the Big Ten championship game and a bowl game. Paterno, who guided the Nittany Lions to two national championships, wanted one more shot at a title.

"At this moment the board of trustees should not spend a single minute discussing my status," Paterno said in the statement. "They have far more important matters to address. I want to make this as easy for them as I possibly can."

The easiest and best decision for Penn State would have been for Paterno to retire immediately on his own. Instead, Paterno ignored the greater good of the university he professes to love -- and more importantly the well-being of the eight known victims and their families -- by selfishly trying to coach the Nittany Lions in a few more games.

Could you imagine the victims' horror if Paterno -- who all but ignored the sickening actions of their alleged predator -- had been cheered in his final home game against Nebraska at Beaver Stadium on Saturday? Could you imagine the victims' horror if Paterno had been carried off on his players' shoulders after winning the inaugural Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis on Dec. 3?

The Hall of Fame coach who did very little to help them was able to go on with his storybook life, while their lives had been shattered by an alleged sexual predator who wasn't stopped by men with knowledge of the unspeakable crimes.

Yes, it's sad that Penn State's seniors will remember their final home game as the tragic end of Paterno's historic reign. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn't matter. It would have been far worse if Paterno's curtain call had been cheered from beginning to end. Penn State simply couldn't let Paterno coach again, and fortunately the school's board of trustees made sure he wouldn't on Wednesday night.

This wasn't a case of Paterno choosing to ignore allegations of booster payments to a player or improper grade changes by a professor. Paterno's inaction allegedly involved one of the most heinous crimes a person can commit -- the rape of a child. While Paterno has not been accused of legal wrongdoing -- authorities have said he cooperated during the investigation -- he is guilty of gross indifference, if nothing else. Morally, Paterno should have done more and he now concedes it.

[+] EnlargeBoard of Trustees
Patrick Smith/Getty ImagesPenn State's board of trustees felt it had no other option other than to fire Joe Paterno.

"This is a tragedy," Paterno said in the statement. "It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more."

Sadly, it's too late for apologies. Paterno and the others believed Sandusky was enough of a threat to children in 2002 to ban him from having youth sports camps on the Penn State campus or from bringing children to the school's football facilities. Apparently, they just didn't believe Sandusky was enough of a threat to call police about their concerns.

After informing Curley and Schultz of the allegations, Paterno apparently never even bothered to ask why nothing was done. Because of his status as an iconic coach on a football-crazed campus, Paterno commanded attention and could have demanded an investigation at any time.

Instead, Paterno and the others did nothing.

For nearly a decade after graduate assistant Mike McQueary allegedly witnessed Sandusky subjecting a 10-year-old boy to anal intercourse, Sandusky had free reign of Penn State's football facilities. According to published reports, Sandusky worked out in Penn State's weight room as late as last week.

McQueary, who is now the team's wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator, is still part of the Nittany Lions' staff. McQueary, who grew up in State College, Pa., and played football at Penn State, has yet to say why he didn't do more when he discovered Sandusky with the young boy in the shower.

But in the end, that's what Joe Paterno did. Nothing.

Paterno's "Grand Experiment" was supposed to be a blueprint for how intercollegiate sports should work, a harmonious balance of academics and athletics, which would ensure that the players who enrolled at Penn State would be better men when they left.

Somehow, Paterno's Grand Experiment became the Great Cover-up.

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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