Joe Paterno's stature suffered greatly in the wake of the Penn State scandal. did he deserve to have his wins taken away, too?

by Clark Groome

The late great Andy Griffith first made a name for himself with a monologue called “What it Was, Was Football.” That routine appeared in 1953, just three years after a young Brown University football coach named Joe Paterno followed his mentor Rip Engle from Providence to Penn State.

Sixteen years later Paterno succeeded Engle as the Nittany Lions’ head coach, a job he held until he was fired last November.

While everyone knows the horrors that took place at Penn State over the last 14 years, it’s necessary to put some things into a perspective that is at once realistic and fair.

Former defensive coach Jerry Sandusky committed unspeakably horrible acts, sexually abusing little boys repeatedly over at least a dozen years. For those acts he has been tried, convicted and will spend the rest of his life in prison. That’s the good news.

Exacerbating the situation was the inexplicable cover-up of Sandusky’s acts once Paterno, president Graham B. Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz learned about them.

According to an investigation led by former FBI director Louis Freeh, those four knew about Sandusky’s behavior in 1998 and never did anything to stop it.

In 2001, graduate assistant Mike McQueary caught Sandusky sodomizing a young boy in a Penn State locker room shower. No action was taken. Sandusky continued to have total access to the athletic facilities.

The reason nothing was done, Freeh reported, was that they were trying to protect Penn State and their own reputations while totally ignoring the damage that Sandusky had done to who-knows-how-many little boys. By not being taken off the street in 2001, Sandusky was free to continue to commit the heinous acts that led to his arrest in 2011.

If the four horsemen of the Sandusky cover-up had actually said something in 2001, explaining that they thought after the 1998 incident that Sandusky was getting help and had reformed, the issue would have caused only a momentary furor. The powers-that-be in Happy Valley would likely have been congratulated for doing the right thing, if a bit late because of their misguided loyalty or lack of understanding about the irremediable nature of pedophiles.

But they did nothing. They went into a complete CYA (cover your “tail”) mode. The results were several more destroyed lives, the self-destruction of the reputation of one of the greatest college football coaches in history and the ensuing catastrophic damage to a great university.

On top of that, the NCAA recently delivered its sanctions to Penn State. Principal among them were a $60 million fine to establish a foundation to help support the victims of child abuse; the reduction of football scholarships from 25 to 15 annually for the next four years; ineligibility for bowl or other post-season play, again for four years; allowing Penn State football players to transfer and play at another school without the usual one-year waiting period; and the vacating of all Penn State victories from 1998 to 2011.

I agree absolutely with what the NCAA did in all cases but one. The vacating of all the victories over the period Sandusky was known to be a predator seems a bit harsh and transparently aimed at hurting Joe Paterno who, until this action, was the winningest coach in Division I history.

This measure unduly and undeservedly hurts the kids who played. For all the horror of what went on at Penn State and for what Paterno failed to do, he did do a great deal that was positive. His teams were a model of decorum. His athletes graduated in large numbers. His football program – its successes and the money it drew to the university – helped to turn Penn State from a backwater state college into one of the great state universities. He gave millions of dollars to Penn State, not to athletics but to the library.

What the NCAA should have done is vacate the team’s six post-1998 bowl victories: the 1998 Outback Bowl, the 1999 Alamo Bowl, the 2005 Orange Bowl, the 2006 Outback Bowl, the 2007 Alamo Bowl and the 2009 Capital One Bowl.

This would have justifiably and appropriately punished Paterno, dropping him from first in all-time victories to second, with 403, five behind Grambling’s legendary Eddie Robinson. It would have been fair without piling on.

Penn State’s football program got out of hand. Paterno likely stayed too long. Spanier, Schultz, Curley and Paterno were irresponsible beyond measure.

For all that, the students at Penn State and those who were part of Paterno’s fine program don’t deserve to be hurt unnecessarily. Eliminating those 105 regular season victories from those kids’ history is the unnecessary part.

What it was, at least for a while, was great football, but football that was totally out of control. What it also was, was an inconceivable horror. The damage has been done, the punishments meted out. It’s now time to hope that Penn State recovers, and that the kids who serve and are served by this great university can have the kind of experience that, for the most part, was what should have been but no longer can be Joe Paterno’s legacy.

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