Once the grandfather of college football, Joe Paterno betrayed those who trusted him.
The surname Paterno mirrors the word paternal, whose Latin root “pater” means “father.”
For decades, that was a fitting twist of fate for Joe Paterno, who was by all accounts the grandfather of college football. The myth of “JoePa” was built on what now appears to be the illusion of integrity rather than the bedrock of principle most assumed.
In 1987, my first year in a full-time capacity at Athlon Sports, we named Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky as Athlon’s Assistant Coach of the Year. I was incredibly green in this business — needless to say — but I knew Penn State Joe Paterno to be a legend among coaches.
And for the second year, Athlon celebrated what we considered unheralded men who performed some heavy lifting and were directly responsible for the success of football programs. First it was Tennessee defensive coordinator Ken Donahue to be recognized by our magazine as Assistant Coach of the Year.
Then in 1986, the Penn State Nittany Lions did something that no other team had been able to do that season, stop Miami’s vaunted, explosive offense. Heisman Trophy winner Vinny Testaverde owned streaks of 116 and 114 consecutive passes without interceptions over the 1985 and 1986 seasons. But Sandusky engineered a defense that intercepted Testaverde five times, leading to a 14-10 Penn State victory and a national championship.
At the time, Sandusky was described by the writer Bill Lyon as “a cerebral, aw-shucks-humble, relentless watcher and analyzer of films, and most importantly the defensive coordinator for the Lions.”
The defensive genius of Sandusky was clear back in 1987 as Joe Paterno went out of his way to make sure that Sandusky was known nationally.
Paterno responded to questions about Sandusky’s prospects for a head coaching job: “Many people have talked to me about hiring him….Jerry has been reluctant to talk to anybody about a head coaching job, though, because of all the commitments he has in the community.”
The Sanduskys, Jerry and wife Dottie, had just fulfilled a dream of establishing a group home for troubled youngsters. The program, known as the Second Mile, was a home for six children at a time and 20 acres of land a mere two miles from Beaver Stadium.
Paterno continued, “Jerry and Dottie are special, special people. We’re all so proud of what they have done, and we would certainly hate to lose them.”
A Sandusky quote from the article: “We believe in the saying that it isn’t what happens to you, but how you react to it that is important.”
The final two paragraphs of the story: “Will Sandusky be a career assistant coach? Or, one day, will there be a team identified as his and his alone? Some speculate that he will be Paterno’s successor. Paterno, who is 60, said after the Fiesta Bowl that he would coach “for another four years, maybe five, but no more than that.” Would Sandsuky’s loyalty then be rewarded?
There is precedent. For 16 years, Rip Engle had an assistant on his staff who was skinny, wore thick glasses and was bright, and everyone wondered why he never took a head coaching job. Joe Paterno always answered that he was happy just being in Happy Valley. Jerry Sandusky says the same thing. He has always been so selfless that you cannot help but believe him.”
So there we were back in 1987. Jerry Sandusky, a coaching genius by all accounts. His players, his superiors, his adversaries all agreed what a defensive genius this man was.
What could go so wrong in an individual that such genius is overtaken by such evil as child molestation? And why is it that our society — and perhaps the sports world in particular — allows such evil to flourish as long as the ingenious is allowed to prosper as well?
We chastise Paterno for allowing this conduct to continue at Penn State and for not alerting law enforcement, and rightfully so. But would other coaches have done more? Sure, they all say that now. But when faced with the choice of keeping a defensive genius on staff to win national championships and earn long-term contracts, or turn a long-time friend and associate in to the cops, what would any of us do?
Far too often our own pleasures and personal gain cloud our judgment. This happened in the Catholic Church as well. Is any institution immune from this behavior and the struggle between self and morality?
For more than 60 years, when Paterno was alerted to one of his players cheating on an exam, was he this reticent? By all accounts, his players were held to high standards. So why couldn’t those same standards be expected of members of his staff?
Paterno and Sandusky enjoyed years of success, and demonstrated superior talents for coaching football and leading young men. That cannot be denied. But neglecting to protect kids from these insidious acts is inexcusable and indefensible.
A tremendous era at a proud institution has ended in perhaps the worst kind of way.