Daily Archives: January 23, 2012

Joe Paterno: Staying Too Long

Joe Paterno could have retired 20 years ago as one of the most successful college football coaches ever. Think about that as pundits (including me) pile on this morning with comments about JoePa’s death Sunday and about his career and many accomplishments.

Many of us stay too long: at a job whether you enjoy it or not, in a relationship that is comfortable, with a grocery store just because you know what isle the ketchup is in. Paterno stayed too long — although it’s understandable why. Here’s the statement released by his family yesterday:

“He died as he lived. He fought hard until the end, stayed positive, thought only of others and constantly reminded everyone of how blessed his life had been. His ambitions were far reaching, but he never believed he had to leave this Happy Valley to achieve them. He was a man devoted to his family, his university, his players and his community.”

Should Joe Pa have done more than just alert his “superiors” when informed about the allegations of sexual abuse of young boys involving Jerry Sandusky? Yes. The conversation with Penn State’s Prez and Athletic Director should have gone something like this: “Look ass hairs, here’s what I’ve been told. Check it out, right now. Inform the police and others, if true. And get back to me, asap.”

Nobody else at Penn State could have had that conversation. JoePa could have. He had no superiors — right up until the day when the Board of Trustees told him he was out. (See NYT, “Penn State’s Trustees Recount Painful Decision to Fire Paterno.”)

From USA Today:

“This is a tragedy,” he [Paterno] said. “It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”

But the university trustees fired Paterno, effective immediately. Graham Spanier, one of the longest-serving university presidents in the nation, also was fired.

Paterno was notified by phone, not in person, a decision that board vice chairman John Surma regretted, trustees said. Lanny Davis, the attorney retained by trustees as an adviser, said Surma intended to extend his regrets over the phone before Paterno hung up him.

After weeks of escalating criticism by some former players and alumni about a lack of transparency, trustees last week said they fired Paterno in part because he failed a moral obligation to do more in reporting the 2002 allegation.

An attorney for Paterno on Thursday called the board’s comments self-serving and unsupported by the facts. Paterno fully reported what he knew to the people responsible for campus investigations, lawyer Wick Sollers said.

“He did what he thought was right with the information he had at the time,” Sollers said.

Yet sometimes you can do what is legally required, while still fumbling the ball ethically.

Here’s more from Sally Jenkins, writing in WaPo, “Joe Paterno dies, leaving a record for others to debate“:

Joe Paterno could outtalk anybody in that Brooklyn beat cop’s voice of his. But the lung cancer and the chemo had left him breathless, and what emerged in two days of conversations with him, the last interview he would give, sounded like a series of sighs. Some of them satisfied, some of them regretful, all of them aware that his life was drawing to a close and 85 years were being relentlessly and reductively defined.

Paterno studied his own end, and knew it wasn’t going to be storybook. So much for the old-fashioned narrative he had built, of bookish yet vigorous young men filling a stadium in the Alleghenies, men he had uplifted such as Franco Harris and Lydell Mitchell and Brandon Short, autumn leaves swirling softly over their heads.

“There’s the kind of stories I wish we could tell,” Paterno whispered.

But a modern grotesquery intervened, and there were too many other boys who allegedly had been damaged.

For most of his 61 years as a football coach at Penn State, Paterno built a record of thorough decency and good intention. He loved his wife, reared five nice children, taught his students well. He turned down big money for the role of a tenured professor, and strolled every day from his modest home to his unpretentious office. He acquired real power, and generally tried not to abuse it, and if sometimes he did, he covered for it by insisting on paying for his ice cream cones. He set out to prove that staying in one place could be as rewarding as climbing to the next rung. He meant to walk away sooner. He stayed too long.

JoePa stayed too long.

Still, he will be missed.