By Bruce Hooley
The last time Penn State played football on Oct. 30, fans remained in Beaver Stadium long after the finish to honor Joe Paterno for passing Eddie Robinson with a 409th career victory.
The prospect of another ceremony Saturday, when Paterno would have passed Amos Alonzo Stagg for the most Division I games coached in a career, couldn’t be permitted.
Thankfully, Penn State’s Board of Trustees realized that and fired Paterno shortly after 10 p.m. Wednesday night.
Given the looming pall over the Penn State community, tracing to lurid details of 40 alleged child molestation charges against Paterno’s former assistant, Jerry Sandusky – the decision proved as wise as it was overdue.
Paterno, too stubborn or too disconnected to understand the damage his continued presence on the sideline would inflict on both the school and Sandusky’s alleged victims, all but dared the Board to fire him by lecturing it in a Wednesday morning statement “not (to) spend a single minute discussing my status.”
That showed how arrogantly Paterno viewed his own self-importance and how cavalierly he disregarded those purportedly in authority over him. That’s nothing new, because in 2004, when athletic director Tim Curley and school president Graham Spanier went to Paterno’s home to insist he retire, he all but sneered at his superiors.
Paterno refused, calling their bluff, daring them to challenge his power base, assuming correctly that neither would summon the conviction to do what had to be done. Neither wanted Paterno’s dismissal as their epitaph.
Now, both men have earned different epitaphs.
Curley faces an indictment for perjury related to concealing his knowledge of Sandusky’s alleged crimes.
Spanier got fired last night, his insignificance and impotence as a leader underscored by how modest a ripple his dismissal made in comparison to that of the legendary coach.
Abraham Lincoln once said: “Nearly all men can stand adversity. If you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
Integrity and honor are indeed fickle character traits, subject to daily, if not hourly, crucibles that reveal or obliterate them. Paterno’s legacy, unimpeachable until Sandusky’s indictment, will require an unforeseen twist in those court proceedings to remove the indelible stain it now sports.
Sure, Paterno passed the test legally when he informed Curley about an eyewitness report of Sandusky raping a boy in the football locker room in 2002. But the iconic coach sadly passed the buck morally when he did not use his bully pulpit to demand knowing where that information went thereafter.
It is always wrong to ask, “How will this make us look?” instead of focusing solely on, “What is the right course of action?” Penn State made that egregious mistake, and because it did, young boys’ lives traversed a needless, never-ending personal torment that assaults decency to its very core.
It is a pathetically-minimal price for Paterno to exit three games shy of one final bow in spotlight if that affords one victim or one victim’s parent even the slightest momentary comfort.
Paterno is not at all a victim in this turn of events, and for anyone to portray it otherwise smacks of appalling insensitivity.
Penn State did him a huge favor by sparing Paterno what would have been a dangerous platform to speak for the school on Sandusky, or worse, to confine his next remarks as an employee of the university to something as trivial as Penn State’s struggling offense or the pursuit of a conference championship.
No 84-year-old man should be thrust into the role of point person for an issue as explosive and hurtful as the alleged crimes which went on within the walls of the football facility, where Sandusky maintained an office and lured his victims with the trappings of Penn State football.
Had Paterno done the right thing nine years ago, not just what insulated him from criminal charges, who knows where we might be now?
Young victims might likely have been spared.
Paterno’s legacy might likely have been preserved.
And perhaps he could have orchestrated an exit strategy he seemed in no hurry to execute until trying to box in the Board of Trustees Wednesday morning by announcing his retirement, effective at season’s end.
In that five-paragraph statement, Paterno expressed sorrow for the victims, pledged his undying loyalty to Penn State and admitted serious mistakes in judgment.
“With the benefit of hindsight,” his statement said, “I wish I had done more.”
We all do, Joe.
We all do.
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Bruce Hooley hosts The Hooligans from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on ESPN 850 WKNR