Penn State’s board of trustees did what Joe Paterno should have done earlier: ended his coaching career, effective immediately. After failing to do the right thing for so long, Paterno still couldn’t completely bring himself to do it even with scandal overtaking the program he has led for 46 years.
So the trustees did it for him. The clear message to Paterno: You’re no longer in charge.
Deservedly under fire for not doing enough to stop Jerry Sandusky, his longtime friend and former top lieutenant, who has been charged with molesting eight young boys between 1994 and 2009, Paterno announced early Wednesday his intent to retire at the conclusion of this season. Wednesday night, the trustees correctly declared that would not be good enough.
After his disgraceful conduct in the worst scandal in college sports history, Paterno, 84, needed to step down immediately. Not after taking one final victory lap for his accomplishments on the field and contributions to the Penn State academic community.
In his written statement, Paterno arrogantly informed the board of trustees it “should not spend a single minute discussing” his status. He had decided how he would leave, and in his mind, that was the end of it.
For decades, Paterno wielded the authority to make that call. With a Division I-record 409 victories and two national championships, he was the ultimate authority on campus. Once, when school officials asked him to retire, Paterno laughed and kept doing his thing. He had that type of juice.
Penn State’s trustees needed to take back that authority. They needed to send a message that there are consequences for the behavior of those who have shamed the university. Ousting Paterno before he wanted to go — dictating the terms to him — indicated the board’s true commitment to beginning what undoubtedly will be a long, painful healing process after this horrific mess.
Paterno faces no criminal charges at the moment, having apparently covered himself by telling his superiors of then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary’s 2002 account of an alleged incident involving Sandusky and a young boy in the showers of the Penn State football building. Given this disturbing information, Paterno strictly followed procedure.
What he didn’t do, apparently, was follow up with authorities. A man who built his iconic reputation on winning “the right way” passed the information up the chain and moved on.
“This is a tragedy,” Paterno’s statement read. “It’s one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”
Hindsight? A more fitting word applies here: hypocrisy. Because it’s simply unconscionable Paterno, who spent his career presenting such a strong moral front, would do so little after receiving an eyewitness account about a child allegedly being sexually assaulted in the building he runs by someone personally close to him.
Paterno did what he was supposed to, some would argue. Others deserve greater blame, the coach’s supporters believe. Tim Curley, Penn State’s athletic director, and Gary Schultz, a university vice president, have been charged with failing to notify authorities after the alleged incident at the team complex.
This isn’t a sliding scale, however.
Everyone who had knowledge of what allegedly occurred in 2002 had an obligation — morally, if not legally — to do all they could to help authorities determine what happened. Paterno didn’t do that.
Paterno defended his actions, saying he spoke with the athletic director instead of turning to authorities, in part, because he was not informed of the “very specific actions” McQueary included in his grand jury testimony. Paterno, though, also said McQueary was “distraught.” That didn’t lead Paterno to ask for more specifics? That wasn’t enough for him to do more than he did?
Paterno is not a target of the ongoing investigation, Pennsylvania authorities say. He seems to have done what was legally required of him in the situation, but is guilty of what the state police commissioner described as a lapse of “moral responsibility.”
“I am absolutely devastated by the developments in this case,” Paterno stated.
Not enough, though, to acknowledge his individual failure by stepping aside right away.
Finally there’s the issue of the Penn State football team, which plays host to Nebraska on Saturday. The Nittany Lions, who have three regular season games remaining, are among the nation’s top teams. They could play for the Big Ten title and finish their season in the Rose Bowl.
If Paterno truly cared as much about his players as he says, he should have set a positive example. He should have shown them that accepting responsibility is more important than continuing to feed your ego.
“My goals now are to keep my commitments to my players and staff and finish the season with dignity and determination,” Paterno stated. “And then I will spend the rest of my life doing everything I can to help this university.”
That may well happen. But on Wednesday, when it was time to help Penn State University in its time of crisis, Paterno couldn’t do it himself. So the trustees did it for him, sending a clear message: You’re not making the decisions here any more.