November 08, 2011
There are certain days you can see coming, that you can spot from way off in the distance, from miles away. Sometimes from years away. And still, when it finally arrives, you find you're not really prepared for it.
For Penn State and college football in general, Joe Paterno's retirement from coaching is one of those days. But never, in anyone's wildest dreams, did they expect it to come beneath the headline, "Penn State Said to be Planning Paterno's Exit Amid Scandal."
According to the New York Times, Penn State's board of trustees has initiated discussions about how to handle the 84-year-old standard bearer's exit "within days or weeks," amid allegations that Paterno effectively turned a blind eye to charges of sexual abuse by his longtime defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky. Another report, by the Associated Press, describes support for Paterno among the board as "eroding." The precise timing hasn't been determined, but the inevitable is a reality: Forty-six years after he was promoted to replace Rip Engle as Penn State's head coach, this season will be Joe Paterno's last. Saturday's game against Nebraska will be his final home game in Beaver Stadium.
Presumably, he'll receive a warmer greeting there than he has in the press or on campus since Saturday, when the Pennsylvania attorney general released a lengthy report detailing a multitude of charges against Sandusky, who played at Penn State in the mid-'60s and spent more than three decades on Paterno's staff before his retirement in 1999. 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, along with 19 misdemeanors for contact with at least eight underage males over the course of more than a decade. Altogether, the charges could carry up to 90 years in prison and $160,000 in fines.
On two separate occasions — once in 1998, when Sandusky was the subject of an investigation by 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 administrators had reason to at least suspect Sandusky was not only engaging in dangerous criminal behavior, but engaging in it on Penn State's campus. Still, Paterno only passed the 2002 charge up the chain to the athletic director, Tim Curley, and left it at that. Sandusky was neither disciplined nor reported to authorities, and (thanks to his "emeritus" status) continued to maintain an office in the football building and enjoy access to the locker room and other campus facilities as recently as last week.
Paterno himself has yet to speak publicly on the subject of Sandusky, what he knew about Sandusky's alleged crimes, his future or anything else. He released an initial statement Sunday through his son, Scott, saying he was "shocked and saddened" by the charges against his former assistant. After instructing reporters to avoid scandal-related questions at Paterno's regular Tuesday press conference, the university entered bunker mode Tuesday morning by canceling the press conference altogether.
Scott Paterno said Tuesday morning that his father was "disappointed" by the cancellation, is prepared to talk about Sandusky and will be holding an off-campus press conference of their own. JoePa was swarmed by reporters Tuesday as he left for practice — there is still a game on Saturday, with major implications for the Big Ten championship on both sides — but didn't throw them any bones.
Curley and another administrator stepped down late Sunday night after being charged with perjury and failure to report. Paterno was cleared, legally speaking, but has spent the last 24 hours under a tidal wave of criticism that could only end in his departure. Now, it appears they're going to get it.
Of all the reasons Paterno should have retired over the last decade — his age, his health, his aloof status from the day-to-day operation of the program, his aloof status from recruiting, the general decline in recruiting, the general decline of the team as a whole — the one that would have never crossed anyone's mind was "integrity." When college football writers began contemplating the obituaries for one of the legendary careers in sports each November, just in case this was the year, the word "scandal" was notable only for its absence. For at least 20 years, Paterno has been arguably the revered institution in college sports, the coach who built his program "the right way," funded a library, defined his campus and his community and still won championships. If he'd left at the end of any of them, it would have been as the most respected figure in the history of his profession.
Now that the moment has come, he's forced to duck reporters while an alum burns his diploma outside the administration building. At best, Paterno will be allowed to coach the final three games of the regular season, announce his pending retirement himself in December and ride off on his players' shoulders at the end of a Jan. 1 bowl game, all without mentioning the name Jerry Sandusky. But there is no scenario now, and no combination of words, that can stop the most long-awaited denouement in the sport from becoming the most depressing.
More Penn State scandal coverage
• Mothers of alleged Jerry Sandusky victims speak up
• Doubt and pain clouds everything in Happy Valley
• Joe Paterno statement in abuse case raises more questions