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Dr. Saturday

Franco Harris stands by his old coach, and loses his new job

Matt Hinton
Dr. Saturday

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If you're hiring a spokesman for your business in greater Pittsburgh, it's hard to go wrong with Franco Harris: Super Bowl MVP, Hall of Famer, businessman and all-around ambassador for the city. At least, that's what the Meadows Racetrack and Casino was betting on — no pun intended — when it hired Harris and former Pittsburgh Steelers teammate Rocky Bleier last month to "assist the entertainment facility with various outreach activities, charitable events and public appearances," as well as appear in television spots.

It's a safe assumption that it was not betting on the new face of the business publicly sticking up for his old college coach in the wake of the child sex scandal that just rocked his alma mater. From the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:

Steelers legend and Penn State great Franco Harris blasted Penn State's Board of Trustees for firing Joe Paterno, and promised to support his former coach by visiting him Saturday.[…]

"I feel that the board made a bad decision in letting Joe Paterno go," said Harris, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "I'm very disappointed in their decision. I thought they showed no courage, not to back someone who really needed it at the time. They were saying the football program under Joe was at fault.

"They really wouldn't give a reason. They're linking the football program to the scandal and, possibly, the cover up. That's very disturbing to me. ... I think there should be no connection to the football program, only in the case that it happened at the football building with an ex-coach. I'm still trying to find out who gave him access to the building, who signed that contract."

The bottom line for Harris: "If I had to choose today between the moral integrity and character of Joe Paterno and the politicians and commentators criticizing him, I would pick Joe Paterno, hands down, no contest every time." On almost any other occasion over the past 40 years, the rest of Pennsylvania would be standing right beside him. On this occasion, though, that sentiment is not going to be very good for business. From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

As a result of this loyalty, the Meadows issued this statement [on Tuesday]:

"In light of the recent developments with Franco Harris regarding Joe Paterno's dismissal, Franco and The Meadows have mutually decided to put their business relationship on hold at this time, while these matters are looked into further."

That's a polite way of saying they fired him for supporting a man accused of effectively sheltering an accused child molester for nearly a decade. If the decision was "mutual," I can only imagine the preceding conversation was a lively one.{YSP:MORE}

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If Harris — a star fullback at Penn State for teams that went 40-4 with two undefeated seasons from 1968-71 — is really under the impression that "there should be no connection to the football program," he might want to take some time to read the Pennsylvania attorney general's report on the subject. On at least two occasions — once in 1998, when former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was the subject of an investigation involving university police, and again in 2002, when Paterno was informed directly by a graduate assistant who said he saw Sandusky raping a 10-year-old boy in a locker room shower — Paterno and other Penn State administrators had reason to at least suspect Sandusky was engaging in violent criminal behavior in the football facilities. Still, Paterno only passed the 2002 charge up the chain to the then-athletic director Tim Curley, and apparently did not follow up with his boss or former colleague.

Sandusky was neither disciplined nor reported to authorities, and (thanks to his "emeritus" status following his retirement in 1999) continued to maintain an office in the football building and enjoy access to the locker room and other campus facilities as recently as last month, even after Paterno and other university officials had been called to testify before a grand jury investigation on Sandusky's alleged crimes. If Paterno's inclusion in the board of trustees' house-cleaning insinuated the football program was partly to blame, an awful lot of paying customers have an awful lot of reasons to agree with its assessment.

Sandusky is facing 25 felony counts of deviate sexual intercourse, aggravated indecent assault, unlawful contact with a minor, endangering the welfare of a child and indecent assault against at least eight victims over more than a decade. The New York Times reported earlier this week that police are working to verify up to 10 new allegations linked to a second charity Sandusky was involved with.

The board of trustees has appointed a special committee to investigate the university's response, as has the U.S. Department of Education.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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