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Thursday, November 10, 2011
Updated: November 11, 8:33 AM ET
Penn State had to get rid of Joe Paterno

By Jemele Hill
ESPN.com

This is a justified end for Joe Paterno.

He announced early Wednesday that he would retire at the end of the season, but finally the university that had placated him in recent years said, no.

It didn't take the coward's way out. It didn't gradually ease its iconic coach out the door.

Penn State's board of trustees ushered Paterno -- and PSU president Graham Spanier -- to a deserved finality with a swift, bold kick.

Joe Paterno
Penn State couldn't afford to allow Joe Paterno to orchestrate his own exit strategy.

It was clear from Paterno's statement early Wednesday that he didn't seem to understand that he had lost the right to leave Penn State on his own terms.

"I have come to work every day for the last 61 years with one clear goal in mind," Paterno said in a statement, "to serve the best interests of this university and the young men who have been entrusted to my care. I have the same goal today."

If the 84-year-old coach had been given the freedom to retire as he pleased, it would have meant that university officials had shown again that they were unwilling and unprepared to confront their legendary football coach.

Paterno should never have been allowed to coach another game, whether he did it walking the sideline or sitting in the press box. He didn't deserve to see these seniors -- whose last game in Beaver Stadium on Saturday will be memorable for all the wrong reasons -- play in their final home game. He didn't deserve to be celebrated or supported while concluding a career that is now tarnished by his reprehensible, implausible inaction against a former assistant who stands accused of unspeakable crimes against children.

And he certainly didn't deserve to finish his 62nd season at Penn State as a champion, which WAS a real possibility. Penn State, ranked 12th in the AP and USA Today polls as well as in the BCS standings, is atop the Big Ten Conference's Leaders Division with a two-game lead with three league games to play.

There have been 40 counts of felony sex abuse of minors levied against former Paterno assistant Jerry Sandusky, and though I am sickened by what Sandusky is accused of, our judicial system presumes his innocence until he is proved guilty.

But we're free to judge Paterno outside the constricts of the law. A lengthy indictment spells out what he did (or, more disturbing, what he failed to do) and what he knew.

According to testimony, current wide receivers coach Mike McQueary -- who was a 28-year-old graduate student at the time -- came to Paterno in 2002 after he witnessed Sandusky sodomizing a 10-year-old boy in the showers at the team's football complex.

Paterno told the grand jury that McQueary didn't tell him the specifics of what he'd seen. But so what? The incident involved a defenseless child. Paterno should have called the police or, at the very least, aggressively followed up through other channels. Instead, he simply informed athletic director Tim Curley without looking into the details, and apparently left it at that. (Curley, who has taken a leave of absence, now faces perjury charges for lying to the state grand jury investigating the case.)

Paterno just pleasantly resumed his role as Joe Paterno, college icon. What became of the 10-year-old victim? Who knows? Apparently, Paterno wasn't terribly concerned.

Joe Paterno
It was not a good year for Penn State coach Joe Paterno.

For a man of Paterno's stature to turn his back on a child, to allow what appears to be a serial child predator to continue to have access to his program -- shockingly, Sandusky maintained an office across the street from the Penn State football team's building -- is totally unforgivable.

Legally, Paterno is clear. Morally, he is as guilty as any of the adults who maintained a code of inactivity -- especially McQueary, who chose to flee the building rather than assist a helpless child.

For those who continue to cling to the notion that because Paterno fulfilled his legal obligation, he should be allowed to finish this season on his own terms, I pose this question: If that 10-year-old in the showers with Sandusky was your brother, cousin, nephew, friend or neighbor, would you be satisfied with how Paterno handled the situation?

And now a follow-up question: How would you have felt if Paterno took the field on Saturday and thousands were cheering him?

If Sandusky is proved guilty, he is obviously the worst monster in this sordid horror story. But it isn't a stretch to suggest that Paterno played the role of Dr. Frankenstein. He didn't create the monster, but if Sandusky is guilty, then Paterno is at least partially responsible for the tragedies of every one of the victims assaulted after that unidentified boy in the shower.

Coaches are supposed to be leaders and role models. Now that we have an understanding of Paterno's failure, how could anyone possibly be comfortable for another minute with his position of influence on a team of young men?

By dismissing Paterno on their own terms, Penn State officials had the courage to deal with an uncomfortable reality in big-time college sports. The NCAA, universities and colleges have created a system that allows coaches to become bigger than the institutions they are supposed to be serving. Because of the escalating salaries earned by college coaches and the pressing funding needs these schools have, the irresponsible actions of coaches not only are often tolerated and overlooked -- remember Ohio State president Gordon Gee joking that he hoped Jim Tressel wouldn't fire him when the school announced a two-game suspension for Tressel? -- but the university officials nominally in charge far too often choose to render themselves powerless.

Penn State stopped Paterno from coaching again. It sent a message that a powerful coach doesn't get the final authority.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.

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