Hutton: The sad, sad story of Joe Paterno
By Mike Hutton 648-3139 or firstname.lastname@example.org July 14, 2012 11:26PM
This is a painting of former Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno in a mural on a wall in downtown State College, Pa., by artists Michael Pilato and Yury Karabash, Thursday, July 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Updated: August 17, 2012 6:57AM
The first time I understood the unhealthy pull of college athletics in a visceral, surreal way came in 2000, when Bobby Knight left a campus divided and torn after he was fired for grabbing a student’s arm.
Knight defused what could’ve been a volatile situation when he delivered a gracious going away speech to students in Bloomington on a September evening, urging them to support the team and move on even though, in some ways, he never has. They were on the verge of rioting before he calmed them.
That didn’t make up for the chair-slamming, vase-throwing, chest-thumping temper tantrums that wrongly inspired a generation of coaches for three decades, all for three national titles, a sterling reputation as a great bench coach, a butt-kicker who didn’t cheat and whose players graduated. Finally, Myles Brand, the school president then, found the Knight-gets-to-behave-however-he-wants-as-long-as-he-wins deal untenable and he pulled the plug. Brand was vilified for it and to this day, there are IU fans who won’t forget how badly Knight was treated.
Hoosier nation paid a stiff penalty for the rogue behavior that it allowed to perpetuate over 29 years. It had to live with a coach, Mike Davis, that had just enough talent to get the Hoosiers to the NCAA championship game in 2002 with what were mostly Knight’s players. Even when IU was good, Davis was never accepted. They were Knight’s players when they won and it was his fault when he started to lose, which eventually led to his firing.
The opposite of Davis then was Kelvin Sampson, a smooth, accomplished coach who could connect with great high school players and then teach them up once they arrived in Bloomington. There was one monumental problem with Sampson. He was a convicted, by NCAA standards, cheater. He arrived at IU having made 577 documented illegal phone calls as the Sooners coach in 2004.
He was fired from Indiana in 2008 for the same offense, banned from coaching in the NCAA for five seasons. Sampson was hired by the school president, against the wish of then athletic director Rick Greenspan, who lost his job because of the scandal. The collateral damage from the Knight firing has been enormous. Only this year, after three awful seasons, after Tom Crean basically had to kick every player from the Sampson regime off the team, has hope returned for Hoosiers basketball. They will be great again after more than a decade of indifference.
Former Penn State coach Joe Paterno, in so many ways, was like Knight and a generation of coaches who grew more and more insulated and drunk with power as their success grew and college athletics turned into a multi-billion dollar business.
The Paterno hubris lasted to the very end, when even as the chaos and shock about the Jerry Sandusky scandal was exploding in November, he offered to resign after the season ended. A New York Times story revealed that Paterno had cut a deal with the board in January to quit after the season with a $3 million payout. According to the report by former FBI director Louie Freeh, Paterno was aware of a 1998 investigation of Sandusky by police — a fact he lied about to the Washington Post when Sally Jenkins asked him directly. There is plenty of other damning evidence about how university officials and Paterno failed to alert the police in the face of overwhelming evidence that Sandusky was a pedophile.
None of this — that Paterno acted to protect his reputation instead of going to the police about the reports of Sandusky molesting young boys, that he went to his grave publicly lying about his knowledge of the reported incidents, that the athletic director and president essentially deferred to his desire to let the crimes slip away — surprises me one bit.
The day job for a college coach doesn’t concern itself with misfits, outsiders and vulnerable children — the kind of kids that Sandusky preyed on. Paterno and all college coaches make deals with highly gifted, motivated players. They teach them up and instill qualities like discipline, character and responsibility (at least that is what they say) and the players help them win.
Highly paid college coaches and players really do occupy a different part of the world than us. The coaches become rich celebrities who sometimes get to call the shots because of those relationships. There was nothing in it for Paterno if he went to the cops, except embarrassment and potential headaches for his program, and there was no one there to make him confront his moral obligation to save the kids from Sandusky.
He was his own boss and he did what was good for him, not the kids whom he couldn’t put a face on.
In Penn State’s case, turning Paterno into the de facto president was a tragic, catastrophic mistake — one that the university and the football program will struggle with for decades to overcome.
Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeHuttonPT