David J. Neal

Penn State’s Joe Paterno just the latest campus king to fall

Hard to watch, now, isn’t it? Nobody ever thought just the sight of those bland Penn State uniforms and that craggy guy with the Poindexter glasses on the sideline could make skin crawl.

The results of the games don’t matter. Whether it’s the University of Miami upsetting No. 1 Penn State in 1981, the reverse in the Fiesta Bowl five years later or Penn State scoring 48 unanswered points to clobber the best of Dan Marino’s Pitt teams, when those games flash across ESPN Classic or The Big Ten Network, the stomach sinks.

Just seeing a Joe Paterno-coached Penn State team is a reminder of how complicit everybody was in what went on in Happy Valley (hard to say that without sneering).

The Freeh Report on Penn State’s handling of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, an investigation headed by former FBI director Louis Freeh released Thursday, didn’t beat a dead horse. It beat a dead horse’s ass by removing doubt about Paterno’s role in his former assistant’s continued sexual abuse of children. It pointed fingers, but not just at Paterno, also at former university president Graham Spanier, senior vice president for finance and business Gary Schultz and athletic director Timothy Curley.

All abused their power. Paterno possessed the most. But who gave Paterno that much juice? He’s a football coach. He’s the director of an extracurricular activity.

But the opiate of the masses that is big-time college-affiliated sports morphed Paterno into a drug kingpin, a Nino Brown empowered by those who crave the short euphoric crack hits he and his “soldiers” provide 12 times a year (13 with a bowl game). And when he found out one of his lieutenants went a little too dark, Paterno helped keep that man and his actions in the dark. He protected his pal, his program and his power.

Hard to look at that 1986 Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year issue, too. There’s Paterno on the cover, portrayed as the symbol of all that’s good and right in college-affiliated sports. SMU sat in the NCAA’s electric chair. UM strutted and sneered at opponents, tradition and college football hypocrisy. Oklahoma All-American linebacker Brian Bosworth had been suspended for the Orange Bowl. Paterno’s selection couldn’t have been clearer commentary by the usually more irreverent Sports Illustrated.

Pete Rose, 1975 Sportsman of the Year, bet on baseball. John Wooden, who shared the 1972 honor with Billie Jean King, looked the other way while boosters helped garner UCLA’s fantastic talent. They and other golden calves named Sportsman of the Year just make you shake your head. They don’t make you shake in anger.

My colleague Dan LeBatard is fond of saying none of us would like to be known by our worst moment. He’s right. Certainly, many young men left Paterno’s program better than when they entered. Many men and women, young and old, benefitted from Paterno’s support of the elements that make a university an institution of higher learning.

John Gotti and Frankie Carbo did good works, too.

The problem for Paterno’s legacy is it isn’t just one moment. The Freeh Report made clear it was a series of moments, a continued reaffirmation of a bad decision to protect a predatory friend over his targets. Paterno repeatedly enabled a serial killer of children’s souls.

A father and a grandfather, Paterno should have been struck into quivering fury once he heard the 1998 accusations against Sandusky. You would think a guy nicknamed “JoePa” would have used the political muscle gained from all those 10-win seasons to buffalo into the driver’s seat, bulldoze any investigation to its truthful end, then act decisively on that truth.

Instead, the Freeh Report says, Curley emailed Schultz, “Anything new in this department? Coach is anxious to know where it stands.”

Well, then, Coach should have picked up the phone himself or walked his happy butt across some Happy Valley real estate and engaged in some “what’s the deal?” face time. A horrific act performed on a child got treated like the construction of a weight-room addition.

Which reminds me: how are ye who acted damned fools over a football coach being fired? Did the cars you turned over, the fires you started, that all still seem like it was a good idea? If you don’t feel a wee bit moronic now, please leave Penn State before your presence harms the school’s educational reputation.

You managed to outdo the idiots at my alma mater, Indiana University, who tore up campus landmarks after basketball coach Bob Knight got fired. Knight reigned in Bloomington the way Paterno did in Happy Valley and, way back when, Ohio State football institution Woody Hayes did in Columbus.

Hayes went down on losing to Michigan three times in a row and an act of violence, punching Clemson’s Charlie Bauman in the 1978 Gator Bowl. Knight’s friends worried he would go out like Hayes. Sure enough, Knight went down on lackluster records and an act of violence, choking player Neil Reed, then grabbing a student he believed spoke disrespectfully to him.

Now, Paterno goes down protecting acts of sexual violence. There’s a lesson in this trend about campus kings.

We’ll be reminded of it with every mention of Paterno and Penn State. Hopefully, we’ll hear it over the ecstasy of the latest hit.