The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Joe Paterno’s legacy was permanently tarnished in the span of just a few days

Joe Paterno’s statue at Penn State was eventually taken down after the Jerry Sandusky scandal. (Pat Little/Reuters, file)

Joe Paterno coached football at Penn State for 46 seasons, winning 24 bowl games and two national titles. But in the span of five November days in 2011, his career was over and his legacy permanently tarnished because of accusations that he knew Jerry Sandusky, his former top defensive assistant, had been molesting young boys, often in Penn State’s locker room. A little more than two months later, Paterno died of lung cancer.

The speed with which all this happened was dizzying to both die-hard Penn State fans, many of whom would seemingly take a bullet for Paterno even after the allegations of his previous knowledge came to light, and to detached observers. Fans in State College rioted. The cable-news networks had a field day. Both sides dug in, evidence to support their cause at the ready. And it all came rushing back Tuesday, when newly unsealed court documents revealed the existence of a man who in 2014 testified that Paterno ignored his complaints of a sexual assault committed by Sandusky, all the way back in 1976.

All it takes is the barest of timelines to show how intense things got back in 2011 and 2012.

Nov. 4: Sandusky is indicted on 40 counts of sexual assault committed on young boys following grand jury testimony that is frankly hard to digest. Authorities in Pennsylvania arrest him the next day. Reaction is swift and damning to Paterno because of testimony from Mike McQueary, a former Penn State assistant who alleged that he told Paterno that he had seen Sandusky abusing a boy in a locker-room shower all the way back in 2002.

Here’s then-Post columnist Mike Wise, writing the day after the indictment:

If the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office is to be taken at its word — if the sad, sickening details of alleged sexual abuse of young boys by Jerry Sandusky are true — a once-immaculate program thought of as beyond reproach is now close to beyond redemption.
Paterno wasn’t charged, but if Sandusky is guilty, Paterno would be guilty — just as Penn State’s athletic director and a university vice president, who were charged with perjury and failure to report suspected child abuse on Saturday, would be guilty.

Nov. 6: Paterno issues a statement. “If true, the nature and amount of charges made are very shocking to me and all Penn Staters,” he wrote.

Nov. 7: Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly says Paterno isn’t the subject of the investigation. Penn State President Graham Spanier and Athletic Director Tim Curley surrender to police on charges that they failed to alert authorities to Sandusky’s abuse. Penn State cancels Paterno’s weekly news conference.

Nov. 9: Paterno announces that he will retire at the end of the season, but the Penn State Board of Trustees later fires him along with Spanier, effective immediately. Penn State students and fans riot late into the night in State College.

Five days was all it took.

“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,” The Post’s Thomas Boswell wrote.

From there, things kind of settled down as the legal process moved forward, the school announced its own investigation into the matter and the football team finished out its season under interim coaches. Then, in January 2012, an ailing Paterno sat down with The Post’s Sally Jenkins for what would be his final interview.

Joe Paterno’s final interview with Sally Jenkins

In the last interview before his death, former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno told the Post’s Sally Jenkins he had no knowledge of accusations of child molestation involving former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. Paterno’s comments conflict with the Louis Freeh report released Thursday, claiming that the legendary football coach and other top university officials engaged in a cover up. (Video: Sally Jenkins/Alexandra Garcia/John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
JENKINS: Assuming, presuming some of these allegations are true, how does something happen, how does someone hide in plain sight that way?
PATERNO: I wish I knew. I do know this, when young Mike McQueary came over to see me the next day [in 2002], he was very upset and I said why, and he was very reluctant to get into it. He told me what he saw, and I said, what? He said it well looked like inappropriate, or fondling, I’m not quite sure exactly how he put it. I said you did what you had to do. It’s my job now to figure out what we want to do. So I sat around, it was a Saturday, waited ’til Sunday because I wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing. And then I called my superiors and I said ‘Hey we got a problem, I think. Would you guys look into it?’ ‘Cause I didn’t know, you know. We never had, in 61 years, until that point, 58 years I think, I had never had to deal with something like that. And I didn’t feel adequate.
JENKINS: Did you understand the seriousness of what Mike McQueary was telling you at the time?
PATERNO: Well not really. I knew it was serious and I wanted to do something about it. And that’s why I went up the chain of command.
JENKINS: People have speculated that you had knowledge of the 1998 police investigation. You didn’t hear any whispers, rumors, reports before Mike McQueary spoke to you in 2002?
PATERNO: I had never heard a thing.

The Freeh report reveals that Paterno and other university officials were indeed aware of the 1998 investigation into Sandusky by the school’s police department. Tuesday’s unsealed testimony alleges that they knew of his predatory ways decades before that.