Commentary

Paterno was worst, not best, example

Coach once famous for winning the right way exposed as NCAA's No. 1 fraud

Updated: July 23, 2012, 4:40 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

This was a phone interview a few years before investigators started looking at a football coach named Jerry Sandusky, and Joe Paterno was on the line to reveal for the first time that yes, he had considered leaving Penn State to save the Miami Hurricanes from themselves.

Miami was scarred and worn down from all the investigations and scandals, and a trustee at the school had told the Good Father of Division I athletics he could name his price if he agreed to coach the Canes.

"I did give it some thought," a 68-year-old Paterno would tell me. "I slept on it because it was flattering. To have a new challenge in my life, at this stage of my life, made it worth considering."

Joe Paterno Statue
Patrick Smith/Getty ImagesJoe Paterno's head coaching legacy at Penn State has gone from distinguished to extinguished.

It was a shocking thought, the idea that the grand maker of the Grand Experiment and a man who represented everything the Miami program did not would leave Camelot for college football's answer to Sin City. I asked Paterno why he chose to remain in State College.

"Miami is a very quality institution that unfortunately has been hurt by all the shenanigans that went on there," he answered. "But to be honest with you, I didn't think a Penn State person would be a good choice for Miami. We're at the other end of the spectrum, and I don't think it's necessary for Miami to try to be Penn State. Miami needs to ... come to grips with the fact it needs more control."

Then Paterno said this: "If I went down there ... it would really be rubbing sand in the wound."

These were common sermons from Mount Nittany in a time when Joseph Vincent Paterno was all we had left, the last man standing in the morally bankrupt enterprise that was big-time college sports. But in the end, the coach who became famous worldwide for winning, and for winning the right way, was exposed as little more than a common NCAA fraud.

Monday morning, the program Paterno protected for years rather than turn in a child rapist in his midst could be protected no more. The NCAA hit Penn State with sanctions that destroyed the football team, effectively reducing it to an intramural club doomed to wallow in the bowels of the Big Ten for who knows how long.

A four-year bowl ban, a five-year probation, scholarship cuts, a $60 million fine and the kind of immediate and unrestricted free agency for Penn State football players even Marvin Miller and Scott Boras couldn't have bargained for.

That's some legacy for Paterno, whose failure to stop the child rapist also cost him six bowl victories, two conference titles and the 111 W's that stripped him of the title of all-time winningest major college coach.

It cost Sandusky's victims so much more than that.

The lost boys of Penn State were forever damaged, and Paterno's failure to help them, identify them, do anything but ignore them preserved the lie perpetrated on football Saturdays in the fall. Sandusky's victims were deemed expendable by Paterno, if only because they weren't prospective recruits who might someday score him a touchdown or three.

So Paterno goes down as the worst NCAA hypocrite of them all. The same coach who once said he couldn't retire and leave his game "in the hands of the Jackie Sherrills and Barry Switzers." The same coach who once said a Penn State person shouldn't try to rescue a Miami program that was out of control.

No program has ever been more out of control than Penn State's. NCAA president Mark Emmert called the breakdowns on Paterno's watch "perverse and unconscionable," and there's no coming back from that.

As Emmert kept calling the case and sanctions "unprecedented," the same adjective applied to the self-inflicted wounds on Paterno's legacy. The NCAA didn't give Penn State the death penalty, but a fate arguably worse than the death penalty.

The Nittany Lions will lose players to competing schools that are now free to poach, and they will lose top high school stars to rival recruiters who don't even have to make up unflattering tales about the program Paterno left behind.

No fictional account could measure up to the real thing. The NCAA didn't even bother going through its standard hearing process when dealing with rogue coaches and teams. Emmert realized this was a seminal moment for his governing body, for all of college athletics, and he rightfully used the Freeh Report findings and testimony in the Sandusky conviction to lower the boom.

Of Sandusky's victims, Emmert said, "There is no action that we can take that will remove their pain and anguish." He took strong action anyway, completing Paterno's spectacular fall from grace. Emmert said the penalties were meant to ensure Penn State will "rebuild an athletic culture that went horribly awry" and field a football team that will "never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing and protecting young people."

Paterno couldn't even do that. This alleged educator, this alleged molder of young men, couldn't even run a program that valued common human decency over a good game plan on fourth-and-1.

Penn State's leaders accepted the findings and punishment, as if they had a choice. They will pay their $60 million fine into a fund supporting child victims of sex abuse, and they will acknowledge that their last football victory came in November of 1997, when a Penn State quarterback threw for three touchdowns against Wisconsin.

A Penn State quarterback named Mike McQueary, who years later told Paterno he'd seen Sandusky sexually abusing a child in the showers.

Even after succumbing to lung cancer, Paterno paid for his gross inaction. The man he raced up the all-time victories list, Bobby Bowden, publicly called his rival "a little negligent" and stood among the many who said Paterno's statue should come down.

Bowden had been hit by the NCAA too, but nothing like this. What Paterno did (or didn't do) at Penn State was worse than anything Jerry Tarkanian did at UNLV, even worse than what Dave Bliss did to the memory of his murdered ballplayer at Baylor.

Can Penn State recover from this Greek tragedy in ways that SMU never fully recovered from the death penalty it received in 1987? Sandusky's victims likely don't care.

They do care that Paterno was among the university leaders who let a monster run free. They do care that college football's enduring do-gooder, its antidote to the bad guys, turned out to be a really bad guy himself.

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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