Taking out the trash
This spring, six Penn State football players were arrested and charged for crimes stemming from an off-campus fight in which at least 15 Nittany Lions were present. The charged included a couple of star players, although what apparently bothered coach Joe Paterno the most was how many of his kids were willing to be involved.
And so Paterno, 80 now but no less tough, no less disciplined, hatched a plan to set things right within his program. He'll let the local legal and student judicial process play out, but regardless he decided that to keep people from thinking his team was trash, it'll spend the fall cleaning it up.
According to Paterno, the Penn State football team will clean Beaver Stadium after each home football game this fall. It'll gather garbage, sweep stairs and maybe even hose parts down.
It'll be Notre Dame on Saturday, nacho spills on Sunday.
It's a job that usually goes to members of club sports on campus – say, rugby or crew – which do it to raise money so they can compete. Paterno said the clubs still will get the $5,000 for the job, but his guys, fresh off playing 60 minutes of major college football the day before, will do all the work starting Sunday morning.
"We're all going to do it, everybody," Paterno told the Harrisburg Patriot-News after a banquet in suburban Philadelphia. "Not just the kids that were involved. 'Cause we're all in it together. This is a team embarrassment. I wouldn't call it anything much other than that."
This is easily the greatest punishment in recent collegiate history, an absolutely diabolical, telling, high-impact bit of discipline that should remind one and all that what Paterno has been doing out in State College, Pa., all these years is more than just win 363 football games, including 20 the past two seasons.
In a coaching business so full of phonies who talk character only to bend the rules, who consider the definition of discipline a player's weight-room attendance, who wouldn't dare pull something like this because it might hurt recruiting, here's Joe Pa, four decades on the job and not giving a damn.
Except about what's right.
The incident was as simple as it was ugly. One player, Anthony Scirrotto, and his girlfriend were insulted and Scirrotto punched passers-by on the street, according to the police. Ultimately, Scirrotto called some teammates, they rushed an off-campus party where the passers-by were and a brawl ensued. More players showed up later.
"He got a little irate, called up a couple of his buddies and said, 'Hey, come on down,' " Paterno said. "They went over there and they got in a fight."
Who was right and who was wrong still is being sorted out by the judicial system. Not by Paterno, of course. The details don't seem to matter to him. Rather than figure out which individuals did what, who arrived when, he decided to hammer the entire team, if for nothing less than lacking the leadership to stop the incident from getting out of hand.
On college campuses where football stars often are treated to a lower standard, Paterno is going, once again, for a higher one.
"I just thought that, hey, we had 14, 15 kids – I don't even know how many – that were involved in something embarrassing, and I think that we need to prove to people that we're not a bunch of hoodlums," he said.
The entire team also will have to build a house for Habitat for Humanity and volunteer for the Special Olympics this summer. But the worst punishment no doubt will be cleaning up Penn State's mammoth 107,282-seat stadium.
A job usually left for others now will be done by Penn State's multimillion-dollar football team. Paterno can't see how this is any different. All the kids on campus are the same, so if the rugby team can find the energy to clean the stadium, so can his guys.
"I don't condone (the fight)," Paterno said. "Our kids were wrong."
And across the nation college football coaches faint.
Most coaches have spent their offseason complaining about not being able to text butt-kissing messages to recruits. They no sooner would wear out their players on an off-day with garbage picking than give up their country club memberships.
At too many places in college football, the kids never are wrong. Punishments often are things that actually help the team: more running, early-morning weightlifting. It is rarely public, rarely embarrassing and never, at least to my knowledge, a blanket shot across the entire team, a true call for leadership and shared values.
But this is why Joe Paterno is Joe Paterno
He isn't worried about hurt feelings. He isn't worried about potential recruits. He isn't worried about guys sacking garbage on Sunday morning.
He's worried about the reputation of his players, his program and his school. He's worried about cleaning things up immediately, starting with the stadium.