Monday, January 23, 2012

When greatness succumbs to disloyalty

Less than a year ago, had he expired from the lung cancer that ultimately robbed him of life, legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno would have been mourned across the board as one of the greatest men to ever tread upon a college gridiron. In October, short of the news that he had covered up a scandal involving young boys and one of his former assistant coaches, Paterno set the record as the winningest Division I coach by eclipsing the 408 wins set by Grambling Coach Eddie Robinson. His record will probably stand for some time to come because most of the more successful college coaches these days end up being tempted by the National Football League or run afoul of their alumni for one reason or other. To have a successful college program that is consistent in its winning ways, to stay at the same school from his time as a young man, to have good health and live long enough to realize the title are all long odds prospects. The great "Pops" Warner (Glenn Scobey Warner) owned the record for decades when I was a young man. It was the University of Alabama's Paul "Bear" Bryant who exceeded his staggering 319 wins in 1982 and then promptly retired. Bryant died less than a month later, never having really been given a lot of time to bask in the sunset of his historic career. Since then several other coaches have moved up in the ranks including Robinson and the now-retired Bobby Bowden from Florida State. Of all Division I coaches Paterno had the most wins of all coaches. Only if one includes smaller Division III schools do the names of John Gagliardi of St. John's of Minnesota (484-133-11) and Larry Kehres (317-24-3) of Mount Union even get mentioned in the same comparisons as that of Paterno and company among active coaches. But the scandal that swept up "JoePa" in the last several months and ultimately robbed him of exiting in a graceful manner likely contributed to his declining health. Paterno was a fighter and influenced a great many of his players to give more than they thought they were capable of doing and to contribute positively to society. When it came time to consider his institution over the lives of several young men at risk, Paterno did only what was necessary. He failed to report the alleged incidents of sexual abuse in such a way that he could distance himself from the scandal. He reported at least one incident to his immediate bosses in 2002, but never made calls to the police to advise them of the scandal. Again, after 35 years at College Station, Pennsylvania, Paterno made an ill-advised call. He thought he could balance the lives of possible victims of sexual abuse against the image of the university he called home. He took a chance that doing just enough would keep the eyes of an inquiring press and an outraged nation off him and focused instead on the alleged perpetrator. In the end Coach Paterno forgot what he emphasized to his young lieges through his many decades as head coach at Penn State, to wit, just doing enough will not win the game. As one has to excel on the field of play, so, too, does one have to do all they can to find justice in the world for possible victims of those who would take advantage of their positions as mentors. It may have been one of the few times Paterno failed to read from his own playbook and it ultimately cost him universal worship of his great achievement and an unsullied legacy. With the passage of time his reputation may regain some of its former luster, but for now, Joseph Vincent Paterno is gone and so is the opportunity to have left the game with his head high, much like Robinson and Bryant did. It is an American tragedy which will continue to play out in the press and in the courtroom. The final ticks of the clock have come for this celebrated coach. His record of 409 wins, 136 losses and 3 ties will stand long after his passing, but so will the specter of coverup and possible disloyalty to those innocent victims who would have been better served by a coach more closely following his own guiding principles.

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