Commentary

Culture of coach worship must end

Will educators have the guts to fight powerful coaches? Or will they run and hide?

Updated: July 13, 2012, 8:55 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

Penn State will have to tear down more than the statue. Penn State will have to tear down the culture that inspired the statue, the culture built around the worship of a false god in thick glasses and rolled-up pants.

Joe Paterno turned out to be just another football coach who wanted to protect his program at all costs, even if the costs involved the human sacrifice of innocent young strangers he didn't know, and didn't want to know.

Paterno cared only about young men who could block and tackle with the best of 'em. The decades-long narrative that had Paterno molding boys into responsible adults, that had him "saving" kids who needed his guidance, turned out to be a colossal fraud. In the end, Paterno turned his back on the kids who needed him most, kids who weren't scoring any touchdowns for him on football Saturdays in the fall.

No, college presidents can never let this happen again. They can never let another larger-than-life coach running a larger-than-life program turn a university into a monument to himself.

Paterno harbored and enabled the very essence of evil, a child rapist, rather than bring dishonor to his football team, and cowering administrators ditched their mission statement and followed the playbook. Helpless young boys were destroyed by a longtime Paterno aide, Jerry Sandusky, because football was very good for business at Penn State, and so was the fictional account of a Camelot graced by Saint Joe.

"If this isn't a cautionary tale for not only Penn State, but for all Division I schools, I don't know what is," said Michael Boni, the attorney representing the victim who triggered the investigation that ultimately brought down Sandusky.

"Now schools have to take a very hard look at themselves in the mirror. We know how many tens or hundreds of millions of dollars are brought into universities by football and basketball, but the priority of athletics dictating the culture, personality and character of these schools is just backwards.

"I'm a sports junkie as much as anybody, but these universities are supposed to be designed to bring young men and women into the world of business and education, and to instill good morals and ethics and virtues in people. Just being whores to athletics is so wrong."

When he was president of Vanderbilt University, E. Gordon Gee decided there would be no more athletic department, no more athletic director, no more jock dorms, no more full-riding quarterbacks and point guards representing a privileged class on campus.

"There is a wrong culture in athletics," Gee said at the time, "and I'm declaring war on it."

In a telephone interview in 2007, I asked Gee why he didn't declare war on this culture while he was in charge at Ohio State, Woody Hayes' old place.

Joe Paterno
AP Photo/Jim PrischingThe long-running narrative that had Joe Paterno molding boys into men and mentoring kids who needed his guidance turned out to be a fraud.

"I would've ended up pumping gas in Vernal, Utah," Gee said of his hometown.

After returning to Ohio State, Gee reminded everyone how badly he didn't want that job in Vernal. Jim Tressel got caught in a cover-up of his own, though his cover-up doesn't even belong in the same galaxy with Paterno's. It was a garden-variety scandal involving garden-variety lies, players trading memorabilia for tattoos, and a coach dressing ineligible players because he wanted to win, win, win.

Asked if he would consider firing Tressel, who was later forced out, Gee said, "No, are you kidding? Let me just be very clear. I'm just hopeful the coach doesn't dismiss me."

Gee later said he was merely joking, only he wasn't smirking, never mind laughing, when he said it.

Some university leaders have stood up to coaches who became too big, too powerful, and too willing to believe their schools were appendages of their programs and not the other way around. Myles Brand took on Bob Knight at Indiana. Nancy Zimpher took on Bob Huggins at Cincinnati.

But these are the exceptions in major college academia, where chancellors talk the good talk before granting outrageous contract extensions to coaches threatening to walk on existing deals, and before pilfering coaches from other schools on covert missions in the dead of night.

How, exactly, does a Bobby Petrino even exist in college sports? Simple. There's always another touchdown-hungry educator willing to forgive and forget the sins committed on someone else's watch.

Now that college presidents have settled on a football playoff system, they need to make a far more significant commitment. They need to quit recklessly paying and recruiting coaches forever hunting for the next big score. They need to stop allowing these coaches to effectively dictate policy, intimidate professors and administrators, and interfere with investigations and disciplinary proceedings.

They need to force coaches to coach, to offer up a model of responsible, accountable behavior for the students in their huddles, and to act more like they're running a team and less like they're running a program.

The Freeh report explains why in black and white. More than 430 interviews and 3.5 million documents told a sick, pathetic tale at Penn State, a tale of janitors and university leaders and everyone in between being too afraid to turn in a child rapist because of the pain it would cause a storied coach and a storied team.

"It was like going against the president of the United States," Freeh said.

And even the president of Penn State wasn't about to do that. At best Graham Spanier was a sorry excuse for a leader, and another official who harbored a rapist. The scandal that unfolded on his watch was the granddaddy of them all, one that put all the booster payments and grade-doctoring and point-shaving cases to shame.

According to the report, Spanier knew what Paterno knew, that Sandusky was sexually abusing boys on their property, and yet the university president picked football over common human decency, never mind his legal responsibility to act.

No case will ever be more disturbing than this one, shaped by what Freeh called a "total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky's child victims by the most senior leaders at Penn State."

Truth is, Penn State shouldn't bother tearing down Joe Paterno's statue unless it is committed to tearing down Joe Paterno's culture. Football ended up making the school and then breaking the school, and now the leaders at Penn State have no choice but to take a season off and realign the school's moral compass. The victims are permanently damaged, and college presidents everywhere must learn from this real-life horror show. They must declare dead the era of the omnipotent coach. They must never again allow a false football or basketball god to lord over anything but game-day preparation.

Do these educators have the stomach for the fight against powerhouse sports programs running amok across their campuses? Or will they continue to tremble and hide as the marching band plays on?

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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