On Wednesday night, Paterno was fired after 46 years as Penn State’s head football coach. At such times, we feel both pity and a terrible awe as we watch events conspire around an admirable man in exactly the wrong way, so that he then conspires against himself to make the situation far worse.
For the millions who ask, “How could Paterno, the football ethicist, fail to do the Right Thing in a situation where almost anybody else would,” we got more evidence on Wednesday afternoon. Joe Pa did it again.
Paterno, 84, said he’d retire after this season — a decision that added another damaging mistake in judgment to a chain of failure that dates from 2002, and perhaps earlier. He said Penn State’s Board of Trustees “should not spend a single minute discussing my status. They have far more important matters to address.”
That sounds right, for a split second, until you see that it is all wrong.
Penn State, with the child sexual-abuse case surrounding former Paterno assistant Jerry Sandusky in the courts, had few bigger issues than deciding whether Paterno coaches its last three regular season games, then a possible conference championship and a bowl game, too. The circus around those games, starting with Nebraska on Saturday, boggles the mind.
“I will spend the rest of my life doing everything I can to help this university,” Paterno said in his statement on Wednesday.
But what if the biggest help you can be is to get out of the way? Right now.
That decision, when for Paterno to leave, how to leave, was no longer in his control. Those days ended when Sandusky was arrested. Wednesday night, less than 12 hours after Paterno announced he would finish the season, the school’s trustees said that he would not. They fired him.
Paterno has been a man above authority at Penn State for decades. He’s been allowed to be selectively deaf or dumb or blind when it suits him. Those days are over.
Even now, as he leaves the public spotlight of coaching, Paterno will still be questioned — and will have to decide how much he will choose to answer — about what happened in 2002 and, maybe as important, 1998.
In 1998, university police did an extensive investigation of accusations against Sandusky, then Penn State’s defensive coordinator, involving his showering with children; two separate incidents, both with 11-year-olds.