The Joe Paterno image reconstruction has entered the last vestiges of rebuilding a myth that was undone months before Paterno’s death. For a man who dedicated his life and put forth the pretense of doing things differently—and “right”—while crafting an unassailable persona of delineating between what he did and what the likes of Barry Switzer did at the University of Oklahoma, the memory of decency and adhering to principles is all that’s left and the family is taking great pains and presumably undertaking significant expense to salvage whatever’s left of that crumbled persona.
Paterno took pride in not recruiting the type of player who wouldn’t go to class; who couldn’t read; who was passed through because of his skills on the football field and the money he could bring in by helping the team win; who would commit crimes and get away with them. He did all of this while allowing a pedophile, Jerry Sandusky, to work as his defensive coordinator and stalk his campus even after he was no longer the defensive coordinator. Which is worse?
In this New York Times piece discussing the report commissioned by the family to defend Paterno, it’s noted that Paterno and Sandusky didn’t have a personal relationship; that Paterno didn’t like Sandusky. If that’s the case, why didn’t he fire Sandusky? I don’t mean for the child abuse allegations, but years before just because he felt like it? Even if Sandusky wasn’t accused of these heinous crimes, Paterno was under no obligation to keep Sandusky around if he didn’t want him. Was Penn State’s on-field dominance and recruiting going to suffer without Sandusky? Highly unlikely. Was Sandusky an irreplaceable defensive wizard? The consensus is that Sandusky was a good defensive coordinator, but this isn’t the NFL where there has to be a scheme to suit the players and the head coach’s job was dependent on the performance of his assistants. They could’ve found someone else to install as the defensive coordinator and there wouldn’t have been a noticeable difference on the field.
Did Sandusky have something on Paterno that necessitated keeping him around and letting him run free with his nefarious activities? It’s a viable question. Paterno was so powerful at Penn State that he was able to control the entire campus if not the entire state of Pennsylvania. His power was so vast that could’ve named his wife as defensive coordinator and gotten away with it and, given the talent levels they had, the team would’ve won anyway. In fact, he could’ve put a headset on a monkey and stuck him in the booth with a hat that said, “defensive coordinator” and there wouldn’t have been a marked difference between Sandusky or Sue Paterno doing the job.
This was not a professional sports situation in which a coach has to accept certain mandates in hiring his assistants because of owner desires or other factors. Paterno was basically the “owner.” He could do what he wanted. There are circumstances in professional sports where a manager is told which coaches he’s going to have. We saw it last year to disastrous results with the Red Sox and Bobby Valentine not speaking to his bench coach Tim Bogar, who he saw as an undermining spy (and was right), and not having a relationship with his pitching coach Bob McClure, who was fired during the season.
Veteran managers like Jim Leyland and Joe Torre have had coaches thrust upon them in the past. In all of Leyland’s jobs, there have been “his” guys Milt May, Gene Lamont, Lloyd McClendon and Rich Donnelly. He trusts them and they’re his aides-de-camp. With the Pirates, though, he had Ray Miller as his pitching coach. Leyland and Miller weren’t buddies, but Miller was a fine pitching coach and Leyland had little choice in the matter because Miller was hired by the front office.
In the end, Leyland was going to do what he wanted with the pitchers no matter what the pitching coach said so it didn’t matter who was sitting next to him on the bench and the same was true with Paterno. It was his show. When the aforementioned Switzer took over the Dallas Cowboys from Jimmy Johnson, he essentially inherited an entire coaching staff, many of whom wanted his job and were still loyal to Johnson. Switzer wanted to be Cowboys coach and that was a concession he was forced to accept to make it happen.
This is not unusual. Front offices don’t want managers hiring their buddies and managers don’t want people they don’t trust in their clubhouse. The front office always wins out. Paterno was not in the position where he had to be agreeable about anything. He was the front office and he made the final call.
Much like the saying that there’s nothing more useless than an unloaded gun, what purpose did Paterno’s accumulated power serve if he was more concerned about his legacy and pretentiously ensuring that the image surpassed the reality than with dealing with what Sandusky was doing? I get the impression that Paterno was told about Sandusky and didn’t truly understand what it was he was being told. Whether that was due to old age; a compartmentalized wall he’d built in his mind not to acknowledge that people—especially someone with whom he’d worked for decades—would do terrible things to children; a desire to protect himself, his legend and Penn State; or all of the above was known only to Paterno.
On both sides of a legal argument, anyone can find an “expert” to say whatever needs to be said to bolster the viewpoint of the person who requested the testimony and investigation. They’ll have “proof” regardless of how ludicrous and farfetched it sounds. The family collected credible names in former United States Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and attorney Wick Sollers to provide the defense. These men have lots of credentials, impressive resumes and letters after their names. Not to impugn their impartiality, but since they were paid by the Paterno family, what were the odds they would find fault in what Joe Paterno did? That they would agree with Louis Freeh’s conclusions? You don’t have to come up with a number because I can tell you what it is: zero.
Freeh, the former FBI Director and lead investigator hired by Penn State’s board of trustees in the Sandusky case, had no obvious vested interests. Agree with him or not, it made little difference to him whether Paterno was complicit in any part of the case. If he was innocent, what difference would it have made for Freeh to say so?
In such a public pronouncement and presentation as that of the Paterno family, there are no parameters for the defense. Paterno’s dead and the only dissection and finders of fact will be done and made by the public. Their judgment is not legally binding nor does it have worse consequences than what the Paterno family is currently fending off. They’re saving a monument, not keeping someone out of jail.
Some will be searching for justification of Paterno’s innocence; others seeking confirmation of his ignorance and/or guilt. Each side has their own versions of the facts and individual desires to have them seen as the “truth.” We’ll never know the answer. But if the Paterno family thinks that this report will rebuild “Paterno” as the totem and not the man, they’re as ignorant as Paterno himself was when Sandusky operated with impunity with Paterno the man, wittingly or not, contributing mightily to Paterno the totem’s downfall.