The Tragic End Of A Legend
The night of November 9th marked the end of an era for not only college football but for all of sports. It didn’t end with a grand farewell in front of thousands of fans, or an emotional press conference, but rather, with a phone call surrounded in controversy.
Joe Paterno was the head coach for the Penn State college football team for 46 years. He holds the record for most college football wins by a head coach with 409. He is the fastest coach the reach 300 career victories. He has won two national championships and has guided Penn State to five undefeated seasons. He is also involved in one of the worst scandals to ever hit college sport.
On November 5th, 2011, Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant football coach at Penn State, was arrested for sex crimes against young boys. Along with Sandusky, Penn State athletic director Tim Curley and senior vice president Gary Schultz were also arrested for failing to report the suspected child abuse by Sandusky.
Paterno and Penn State president Graham Spanier were never formally charged but are involved in the controversy due to their failure to inform the police after they were made aware of Sandusky’s crimes. In 2002, Paterno was told by a graduate assistant that he had seen Sandusky abusing a child at the Penn State athletic facility. Paterno passed this information onto Curley and Sandusky was removed as an assistant coach but the police were never involved.
Paterno’s failure to involve the police sparked a massive debate as to whether Penn State should fire Paterno. Even though Paterno didn’t break any laws he clearly demonstrated a lapse in moral values. Moral values that he has been preaching to his players for 46 years. Paterno’s legend at Penn State wasn’t solely based on his ability to win football games, but rather his ability to instill a strong moral fabric into his teams. Paterno was hailed by some as Saint Joe and known for his ability to win games the right way. But now we’re left wondering who the real “Joe Pa” is.
I awoke on November 9th to the news that Paterno was going to retire at the end of the season, and I felt ok with it. My step-dad was born in Philadelphia and had an attachment to Penn State that was passed onto me. I grew up watching Penn State football games on Saturday and during every game the cameras would eventually make there way over to Paterno which was immediately followed by some sort of anecdote from my step-dad about how great he was. Hearing that amid all of the scandal and controversy that Paterno would be able to finish the season with “dignity and determination” felt right to me. Even though I don’t agree with what he did, I felt that his legend didn’t need to be tarnished over one horrific mistake. However, just hours after Paterno announced that he was planning to retire, Penn State officials announced their plans to fire Paterno, effective immediately.
At the time I felt like this was the absolute wrong thing to do. Penn State only had one more home game left, had a chance to win the Big Ten and even make the Rose Bowl. It didn’t make sense to me to fire such a legendary coach that hadn’t even been charged with a crime. Why not let Paterno, a man who had dedicated the past 46 years of his life to Penn State, finish out the season and possibly win one last championship. A man like Paterno deserved better, he deserved a traditional fair well from the game. He deserved to leave on his terms, waving goodbye while receiving a standing ovation. After being fired though, none of that would be possible. I felt just like the students who rioted that night, I was angry.
A few days have passed since I had that initial reaction and one thing is very clear to me, I was not angry, I was in denial. I was trying so hard to justify what Paterno did to preserve that perfect image I had created for him, and I couldn’t understand why anyone would try and ruin that. However, Paterno made a very deliberate decision to not get the police involved. Nobody may ever no why he made that decision, but the fact is that by not doing more, Paterno allowed Sandusky to continue with his crimes when he may have been able to prevent other boys from being abused. Upon reflection, Paterno doesn’t deserve the traditional fair well I so desperately wanted him to have the night of November 9th. Football is just a game, and Paterno was a great football coach, but the mistakes he made were not done on a football field and they resulted in very real and very terrible consequences.
Paterno always preached about winning the right way, and his teams always seemed to do that, but when the time came for him to put his own words into action he turned away from them to protect the integrity of his football team. So we may never know who the real “Joe Pa” is, if he was a great man who made a single mistake that could ruin an otherwise perfect legacy, or if he was simply a coach who said what needed to be said in order to win football games. Either way though, his actions off the field have shown that he no longer deserves a legends send off from the game of football.
And that is a tragedy.