Commentary

The tragedy of Joe Paterno

The iconic coach's role in the Penn State scandal raises questions about who he is

Originally Published: November 11, 2011
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

Twenty years ago, in a campus presentation almost comical in its modesty, the most famous and powerful man at Penn State solemnly recited a Greek oath and became an honorary member of Eta Sigma Phi, an honors society devoted to the study of the Greek and Roman classics.

[+] EnlargeGraham Spanier and Joe Paterno
AP Photo/Gene PuskarJoe Paterno enjoyed clout with university administrators, including former president Graham Spanier.

Afterward, a small platter of cookies was served.

"I still have a photo of him from that day," says professor Michele Valerie Ronnick, who has since left PSU for Wayne State University.

"I was astonished he wanted to come to our little ceremony. He was very humble and gracious."

Joe Paterno has always had an appreciation and love for those classics, having read the Roman poet Virgil's "Aeneid" in its original Latin form numerous times throughout his life. In many ways, Paterno seemed to be a reflection of the Virgil character he admired most, Aeneas: selfless, compassionate, a leader without peer, morally superior, rarely questioned by his followers and almost too good to be true.

But much like Aeneas, also inevitably flawed by his own weaknesses.

"The circumstances of Joe Paterno are in the tradition of the Greek tragedies," says Ronnick, who has a soft spot for Paterno to this day. "It is the falling from the apex of success to the absolute nadir. It's real."

Or in this case, surreal.

In less than a week's time, the 46-year reign of Paterno as Penn State's head football coach -- and as the university's de facto leader -- collapsed under the weight of arrogance, ignorance and a sexual abuse scandal that will leave deep, unsightly scar marks on whatever is left of his legacy.

His spectacular rise and equally spectacular fall prove once more that absolute power absolutely corrupts or, at the very least, blurs the vision. And make no mistake: Paterno's power and influence at Penn State was often vast and overpowering.

"Joe is -- was -- in absolute control of Penn State athletics," says a former BCS conference official who had a long working relationship with Paterno. "There's no question about it."

Says another BCS conference administrator: "Joe's got a dark side. He's not always that witty old man. Joe can be very, very tough. He's very smart."

The more phone calls you make to those who know Paterno, who have worked with Paterno and who have socialized with Paterno, the more you realize he isn't simply the smiling cardboard cutout figure that the riotous crowds in downtown State College used as a symbol of their unrest.

The descriptions from one administrator: "Fabulous and horrendous" … "Surreptitious" … "Self-absorbed" … "Calculating" … "Protective of everything he's done."

JoePa is three-dimensional, capable of extraordinary acts of kindness and charity, as well as extraordinary acts of backroom politics. But he isn't who we thought he was. If he were, he would have called the police nine years ago when first alerted to the alleged misconduct of former Nittany Lions assistant coach and friend Jerry Sandusky.

A reader named Donald Hart emailed me the story of his own 2005, near-fatal auto accident, an accident that ended his high school football career and prospects of an athletic scholarship. Hart was bedridden, had lost 50 pounds and was depressed.

[+] EnlargeJoe Paterno
AP Photo/Reed SaxonPaterno's achievements on the field have been overshadowed by the scandal.

And then one day a stranger called. The stranger was Paterno, who gave Hart a memorable pep talk.

"The next day," wrote Hart, "it seemed like my injuries didn't hurt as bad anymore. I started eating more food (even though I had to eat it through a tube because of my wired jaw). I started doing whatever workouts I could manage. And the biggest thing of all -- purpose and hope came back into my life."

Among many of his peers, Paterno is respected, admired, even beloved. His Penn State program was a model for academic achievement and NCAA compliance. But he also has been known to treat Penn State and even conference administrators with a strong verbal disdain at times. And never has he been afraid to use his considerable clout.

According to those who were directly involved in the interview process, it was Paterno who chose Tim Curley to become PSU's athletic director in 1993.

"Joe wanted to pick his man and Joe did," says a person with firsthand knowledge of the interviews.

Paterno had equity at Penn State, the kind of equity that gave him the power to essentially stiff-arm the school's efforts to coax him into retirement in 2004. He tried the same audacious tactic earlier this week when he announced his decision to retire at season's end and added, almost as a warning it seemed, that the PSU board of trustees had more pressing matters to deal with than his job status.

It was the final, tone-deaf act of a man who failed to realize his own power base had eroded. Wednesday night the trustees informed him by phone of their decision to fire him, effective immediately.

A statement released that night from Big Ten Conference commissioner Jim Delany included a six-word sentence that was perfect in its simplicity. The entire situation is so sad.

Profoundly sad because of the victims affected by the alleged acts of Sandusky.

Sad because a great university has been kneecapped by its very own.

Sad because there are so many questions involving Paterno's role in the chain of events that led to his forced departure.

[+] EnlargePen State students
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarWhile some Penn State students rallied downtown and at Paterno's house, others recognized the true victims.

For example:

Why didn't Paterno contact the police when first informed in 2002 by then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary of an alleged locker room incident involving Sandusky and a young boy?

Why did Paterno heir apparent Sandusky unexpectedly resign from Penn State in 1999?

Why was Sandusky granted special access to the Penn State athletic facilities even after the 2002 incident?

Why did all of this remain secret for so long?

"Joe doesn't know why [Sandusky] resigned?" says a former athletic director at a rival institution. "Bull----. That was the first cover-up. … In '99, when Sandusky resigns, you think this coaching staff didn't know what was going on?

"In 2002, this could have been a two-day story: 'Ex-Penn State assistant coach is arrested.' I'm not saying it wouldn't have been a painful story, but it would have been dealt with. But there's so much arrogance to think they can keep it a secret. And it starts with Joe … Monumental ego and arrogance."

These are the kind of opinions and statements you had better get used to. That Paterno had better get used to.

As a promised comprehensive and exhaustive Penn State in-house investigation begins, as the Sandusky trial hearings approach, as the expected civil lawsuits are filed, there are likely to be revelations that test the faith of even Paterno's most vocal supporters. This is what happens when more than a decade's worth of dirt is swept under a blue and white Penn State rug.

Forget the senility defense. Those who argue that Paterno was too old, too out of touch to truly understand what he had been told by McQueary years ago -- they need a new tactic. Because you can't have it both ways. You can't plead senility, but at the same time insist that an injustice has been done by forcing out an 84-year-old Paterno from overseeing one of the most storied and valuable football programs in the country. Either he's a semi-lucid old man or he's a capable, vibrant CEO of the Nittany Lions football brand.

Whatever he is or was, this much is for sure: Paterno has coached his last game at Penn State.

Paterno said it himself during a commencement speech he gave to the Penn State Class of 1973. "Success without honor is an unseasoned dish," he told the graduates. "It will satisfy your hunger, but it won't taste good."

Paterno's honor is now in question. Until a week ago, who would have ever thought that possible?

"Everything that he thought was back in his grasp, it's gone," says Ronnick. "It's gone. This is his end."

A student of the classics, Paterno surely recognizes his own fate. He is part of a tragedy. And by all appearances, a self-inflicted one.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter