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On Paterno, and how we got here

And while the specific circumstances behind the end of his successful, influential career are flabbergasting, the root cause of his inglorious exit should not be.

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I wish I could share in the common sentiment – shock – being expressed by just about everyone over what happened at my alma mater, Penn State.

But while the exact nature of the scandal ­– and the heinous things that former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky allegedly did to innocent, helpless boys – surprises me (as apparent acts of pure, calculated evil probably should), the fact that the most powerful people at the university conspired to cover it up barely registers. Anyone who has followed how the leaders of the institution handled themselves publicly for about the last decade should have feared this could happen.

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While so many of my fellow graduates – and Penn State has more than a half-million alumni – express dismay over being "let down" by their school, I just cannot summon the feeling. During my time attending Dear Old State and working at its student newspaper, The Daily Collegian, I became accustomed to an administration that often rebuffed even the simplest requests for information. The president, Graham Spanier, corresponded with us almost exclusively through email, and then barely. The athletic director Tim Curley, now charged with perjury and failing to report what he knew to authorities, rarely talked to reporters except to recite whatever pious marketing scheme he and his cronies had conjured up that week. Take real questions about the business of running a university and its sports programs, both so dear to the people of Pennsylvania? Spanier and Curley avoided that part of their duties whenever possible.

Joe Paterno often did, too. By the time I began covering him, as a freshman in 2000, he wasn't the same cerebral intellectual-as-football-coach that I'd read about and admired as a kid. He was an icon, yes, and wrapped in his legend were big ideas like the "Grand Experiment," which emphasized that "success without honor is an unseasoned dish." But in my day-to-day dealings with him – as removed as they were – and his players, the focus appeared to be squarely on running a semi-pro football team known as the Nittany Lions. Joe didn't talk quite as much about molding young men, didn't rail quite as fervently against things he saw as subverting the sanctity of college sports. He seemed entirely comfortable with the idea that he'd made his bones decades ago, and that was that. The culture surrounding him supported that notion, of course. It was almost impossible to question the tenets of his virtue without being labeled nothing more than a rabble-rouser. Yet his players ran amok and left us constantly reading through police reports and court documents, and Paterno too often dismissed their transgressions as boys being boys. He was lenient in exactly the way Joe Paterno was not supposed to be.

As this story has ballooned, and the term "deviate sexual intercourse" has worked its way onto the sports pages, there's been an incredible amount of reflection on why this happened and what it means. I agree, to some extent, with the Philadelphia Inquirer's Frank Fitzpatrick, who wrote that the insular way in which Paterno ran the program left Spanier, and Curley feeling as if they were accountable to no one. Deadspin's Dom Cosentino pointed out, and presciently so, that Penn State has long operated in a bubble; major newspapers from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh did not insist on covering the football program thoroughly, and the townspeople in State College had it in their best interest to make sure the football team, the heartbeat of their little city (and economy), had few obstacles (i.e. players who aren't academically eligible, or who get arrested).

It is worth noting, though, that even when newspapers have done a good job uncovering uncomfortable truths about Penn State, the football team has generally been coated in Teflon. Few people seem to recall that LaVon Chisley, a defensive end who spent three years in the program, committed one of the most brutal murders in Centre County history. He stabbed a fellow student -- and the son of a man who had taken him in when he lost his spot on the team -- 93 times. This came after a drastic change in his lifestyle -- he'd bought expensive dogs, humongous tattoos and wracked up $10,000 in debt to a sports agent -- led to failing grades. Where was his help? Did no one from the "Penn State family" notice this young man's life slipping away?

Even the Sandusky story did not gain traction when it should have. The Patriot-News, in Harrisburg, first reported that he was the subject of  a grand jury investigation for the indecent assault of a teenage boy on March 31. It then reported that the investigation had identified "more than one alleged victim" on Aug. 30. Yet it does not appear that any of the major news outlets now swarming campus paid much attention. Sure, Paterno had not yet been tied to the scandal. But it should have at least sent a few reporters scurrying; Sandusky, after all, remained affiliated with Penn State. The Second Mile was, if unofficially, part of what made Penn State different. That a long-time assistant would leave to run a charity for children showed that Penn State had its priorities in order (though the real reason for Sandusky's departure should probably be questioned now.)

***

Players were constantly getting into violent altercations with other students when I was at Penn State. There were fights at the ice skating rink, the union building at the center of campus, frats, apartments, houses. I covered one sexual assault trial -- for former Ravens cornerback Anwar Phillips, who was acquitted but went on to stay classy (what the link fails to note is that after "accepting responsibility" for his role in the incident at Penn State, Phillips was allowed to play in a bowl game before serving his two-semester suspension) -- and looked into probably a half-dozen others that never went to trial. Women were fearful they'd never get a fair trial in State College. Victims of beatings knew the scales of justice were already tilted against them. ESPN actually compiled numbers to show just how rambunctious it got in Happy Valley, reporting that from 2002 to 2008 there were 46 players charged with 163 counts.

Yet none of it stuck. Penn State remained a place where they "did it the right way." Paterno's public relations savvy certainly helped. It was Paterno, after all, who'd wooed reporters across the state as a young man with his stories of scholar-athletes who excelled on the field and were engaged in the classroom. Later in his career, Paterno's wisdom was solidly established and he could get away with swatting real questions by reminding reporters that he'd been around a long time.

Paterno's original approach to the scandal was familiar. That does not make it any more rational, or less insulting. Head coaches can be this way. As dictators of their multi-million dollar programs, they tend to forget that the rest of the world doesn't work that way. Considering Paterno has been the man in charge since 1966 and has outlasted every one of his peers – how many people anywhere have big, hands-on jobs at the age of 84? – he's long since lost the capacity to accept that he might not at all times be the only authority that matters. Or, that at other times, he might just be full of crap, and outrageously so.

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No one can possibly believe that Paterno, when informed by a panicked graduate assistant that something untoward had happened in the shower involving a man and a boy, could have synthesized that information into anything requiring that he merely advise his supervisor and then forget about it. This notion, on its face, is patently absurd. But when you add other elements – like the fact that the graduate assistant was Mike McQueary, who Paterno once trusted to play quarterback for him and later gave a full time job to – you have no choice but to realize that Paterno whisked the information aside to protect his program and his friend, in that order. Now he has to obscure the issue by trying to turn it into an issue of semantics, saying that he didn't know the "very specific actions" that allegedly happened in the shower -- as if he needed that level of detail to know whether it was right or wrong.

He does this because he’s the Coach – how many other job titles not bestowed by professional degree or institutional rank stick with people? You never hear, There goes Accountant Smith or Trashman Jones or Structural Engineer Edwards – and he’s accustomed to shaping the world around him. It’s a well-worn joke among Nittany Lions fans that Paterno annually makes East Carolina or West Nowheresville University sound as if they’re suddenly fielding a football team worthy of national title consideration. That, of course, is essentially a white lie and the sort of thing every coach at every level does to ensure that his team respects the opponent. But give coaches enough leeway – and Paterno had as much as anyone has ever had – and they’ll lapse into casting every situation the way they need it to appear for the good of the team.

When covering Indiana basketball, I wrote about the end of Kelvin Sampson's short tenure there. He was ousted, eventually, because he had lied about his part in – let us all shout this now – very minor NCAA rules transgressions involving the use of telephones to contact recruits. Without going too in detail, Sampson's culpability in the matter depended almost entirely on whether he realized where certain calls were coming from. That is to say, whether or not he had looked at the caller ID on his phone before answering. Sampson steadfastly claimed that he had not, despite the fact that on the particular phone he had a the time it would have been nearly impossible to not read the name or phone number, printed in large letters on the screen, before accepting the call. Sampson maintained, though, that he was so anxious to receive calls from recruits – he was barred from placing them due to violations he'd committed at Oklahoma – that he simply answered the phone right away, as soon as it rang, without letting his eyes scan the letters or numbers less than an inch above the spot on the screen he'd press to take the call.

Sampson probably still stands behind this blatant lie. He also never admitted that, whatever the case, the fact that he failed to take every step possible to ensure he was doing the right thing meant he had done the wrong thing.

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Paterno, at least, has admitted to his failures. In the release announcing his plan to retire, he said: " It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more."

***

During the lean years in the early part of the 2000s, when Penn State was not going to bowl games, it was fashionable to say Paterno was "out of touch," – that he didn't understand the way football had changed and couldn't handle the demands of recruiting kids who grew up playing video games instead of stickball and preferred text messages to hand written letters. That, of course, was a moot point. Paterno would prove as much by putting together a few pretty good football teams later in the decade. Football generally isn't as complicated as those of us who write and talk about it make it seem. It favors the strong and the fast, and sometimes the meanest or trickiest. There's a lot of luck involved. Joe Paterno knew how to build teams and then compel them to win. He never lost touch with that.

What he seemed to lose focus on, at least, was what he had envisioned for Penn State football.  Maybe, as many have suggested, his fundraising duties took him too far away from the actual coaching. But when he said that Tony Johnson, a wide receiver who'd arrested for DUI "didn't do anything to anyone" it stoked outrage across the state. How could he not realize that with one swerve Johnson could have changed so many lives forever? How could he be so cavalier?

Paterno has pledged to spend the rest of his life helping the university. Hopefully that means raising money for a national center to study child abuse. None of the money he raises should need to go to football; the program he built should generate more than enough to keep the athletic department going. Paterno should also spend time getting to know the best professors at the university, and then he should go out of his way to tell their stories. He should investigate all of the studies being conducted, the projects being completed, the books being published and the buildings being constructed by the people who really Are Penn State with the same furor that he dissected opposing defenses. He should tout those things where ever he goes, should fight for them the way he would for one of his players who was up for the Heisman. He should do everything possible to turn the focus on the very good, very difficult real-world work being done by so many who weren't drawn to Penn State because it represented some blissfully naive Happy Valley numbed by empty revelry but because it was a place where they could make a difference.

He should help Penn State become what he wanted it to become.

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