Simple uniforms. A history of excellence, coupled with honor. A coach who was funny, feisty and fierce. Old school, smash-mouth football. Fearful linebackers, ferocious running backs. The Nittany Lions had it all and I was on board.
I did not attend Penn State University, but ever since my youth I’ve been a devoted fan of the football program. Notre Dame was too pompous. Texas too big. Alabama too Alabama. Tennessee hurt my eyes. I wasn’t going to dye my hair blond and take up surfing to follow USC. Oklahoma, frankly, frightened me. The other Big Ten schools wouldn’t do: Northwestern wasn’t enthusiastic enough. With Illinois State grads in the family (and I would become one), rooting for Illinois in anything was out of the question. Michigan sparked my interest, but it was Penn State’s instantly likable coach Joe Paterno that ultimately won me over.
I admired Paterno so much that I read multiple biographies on the man. He was more interesting than any other college football coach and seemed more genuine. The dark, thick and square glasses. The pants that didn’t reach his shoes. The squeaky voice. Bobby Bowden, Jim Tressel, Lloyd Carr, none could hold a candle to Paterno. He demanded his players act accordingly on and off the field. His motto was, “Success with honor.” He was an icon.
Turns out, he was also a phony.
Former FBI director Louis Freeh’s report, which was commissioned by the university’s trustees, states that top officials, including Paterno, were aware of the child-abuse allegations against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky in 1998 and set about covering it up.
It’s a revelation that knocks the air from your lungs. You recall reading, back when the scandal broke, Paterno’s adamant denial of being aware of allegations in ’98. You’re crestfallen. Sure, you’ve been lied to before, by presidents of this free country, mind you, but this involves the abuse of children and therefore is repulsive and reprehensible beyond any other untruth.
So there it is, the photo of you standing next to a statue of a coach you once admired. You shake your head in disgust, considering that not far away from where the photo was taken, in the football training facility’s showers, Sandusky abused one of his many victims. And you wonder, should the bronze statue that stands 7-feet high of a man who physically stood 5-feet-8 but whose stature once lingered in the stratospheres, come down?
The answer is no.
Paterno is dead. Two top executives, former university vice president Gary Shultz and former athletic director Tim Curley, who also both allegedly knew of the abuse, have been fired and await trial on perjury charges. Sandusky is going to prison for the rest of his life. It was announced back when indictments were being handed down, that Paterno would not be charged with a crime.
Why should a statue that honors a coach — the winningest in Division I football — come down? Over the years, Paterno and his wife Sue donated upwards of $4 million to the university. He gave 61 years to the program — 46 as head coach. He helped shape the minds of hundreds of young men, many of whom revered him and his principles after graduating.
But the words on the stone wall to the right of his statue are haunting. “They ask me what I’d like written about me when I’m gone. I hope they write I made Penn State a better place, not just that I was a good football coach.”
Sorry JoePa, I’ll remember you as merely a good football coach.