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.
After arriving at Penn State in 1950 as a 23-year-old fresh out of Brown University, Paterno rose to power in State College, taking over for his mentor Rip Engle and ultimately evolving into an 84-year-old elder statesman of the sport and society in general. Paterno was not just a monument of football and de facto mayor of Happy Valley, he was an iconic figure of American pop culture.
Yet following the Jerry Sandusky child-sex scandal, Paterno’s famous mantra of “Success with Honor” rings hollow. What price was paid for the Division I record 409 career wins, five undefeated-untied seasons and two national championships?
Sandusky was the architect of the “Linebacker U.” defense and a Nittany Lion lifer, as a player from 1963-65, a graduate assistant in ’66 and a defensive coach from ’69-99, serving as defensive coordinator from ’77 until he retired. This wasn’t just “some guy,” Sandusky was Paterno’s right-hand man and one-time heir apparent.
Allegedly, what amounts to a corporate-sponsored child rape ring was run by the sinister Sandusky in the football offices, locker rooms and showers at Penn State. A pathological pedophilic predator was on the loose in the backyard and home turf of the omnipotent Paterno. But the man lauded for leading, teaching and molding powerful young men on the football field was somehow unable or unwilling to protect helpless young boys from a friend and colleague outside the lines.
Paterno’s watchful eye looked the other way.
For now, the accepted truth is that Paterno did not know anything was amiss until March 2, 2002, when assistant Mike McQueary told Paterno that he had witnessed Sandusky sodomizing a 10-year-old boy in the showers at Penn State’s football facilities. On March 3, 2002, Paterno told athletic director Tim Curley. After notifying his “boss” — who made less money and had repeatedly proven powerless in attempts to fire or force the resignation of JoePa — the coach did nothing.
At best, Paterno went the better part of a decade allowing, rather than stopping, Sandusky’s horrific behavior. At worst, Paterno’s tacit endorsement of Sandusky’s evil actions had gone on for 20, maybe 30 years. But Paterno reportedly never brought up the subject with Sandusky. And he never alerted the police of a dangerous man who had adopted children, foster children and ran a charity (The Second Mile) for at-risk children.
“Somebody has to question about what I would consider the moral requirements for a human being that knows of sexual things that are taking place with a child,” said Pennsylvania state police commissioner Frank Noonan.
“I think you have the moral responsibility, anyone. Not whether you’re a football coach or a university president or the guy sweeping the building. I think you have a moral responsibility to call (the police).”
The Paterno persona was presented as more than just a Brooklyn accent, thick glasses, wavy hair, blue tie, rolled-up khaki pants and black sneakers. There was implied substance with the signature style. There was a “Grand Experiment” and a “Penn State Way,” a holier-than-thou culture that took pride in the ideals of the university and its patriarch Paterno.
But Paterno has been fired and his empire is in ruins. A man who turns 85 on Dec. 21 is going through the most stressful time in his life. He will remain tied with Amos Alonzo Stagg for most games coached (548), instead of breaking the record on Senior Day at Beaver Stadium this Saturday against Nebraska, as planned.
More victims are likely to emerge from the dark shadows in the wake of Sandusky’s reign of terror, which is firmly rooted in Paterno’s betrayal of those who trusted him to do what was right — not harbor and nurture all that is wrong.
“If this is true we were all fooled,” Paterno said in his original official statement regarding the 40 counts of sexual abuse charged of Sandusky.
Tragically, this is true. And we were fooled — by Joe Paterno.
by Nathan Rush