Monday, January 23, 2012

Joe Paterno

If you're anything like me, the announcement of legendary Penn State coach Joe Paterno's death was met with mixed emotions when you turned on Sportscenter on January 22, 2012. First, I was a bit stunned (though I would have been more stunned had CBS not inaccurately reported his death the night beforehand). Yes, Joe Paterno was old and sick, but Joe Paterno has been around for forever. There were times when, following a press conference, I would find myself thinking, "How is this man still standing, let alone coaching?". That's not meant to be funny or rude; it's just the truth. Joe Paterno was old, but he was omnipresent in college football, especially in the Big Ten. Everything changed on November 5, 2011, when sexual abuse charges were first brought up against Paterno's former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky. The number of people involved in the scandal eventually increased to encompass Paterno himself, leading to his firing on November 9, just four days after the scandal was revealed. Less than three months later, and before his testimony could be used against Sandusky, he was dead, leaving the sports world reeling over how to remember one of the greatest college football coaches of all time, and also one of the most disappointing.

The Kubler-Ross model was first proposed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying. She based her model off research and the experience of over 500 dying patients that she interviewed. The model she proposed is better known as The Five Stages of Grief.

Stage 1: Denial
Nobody wants to think ill of the dead. It would be easy to concentrate solely on Joe Paterno's accomplishments because there are so many of them. The 2011 season was Paterno's 62nd year with Penn State, his 43rd as head coach, making him the longest lasting head coach at a single school in history. He ended his career with 409 victories and 24 bowl victories (the most of any coach in history) out of 37 bowl appearances, and also as the only coach to win each of the four major bowls - Rose, Orange, Fiesta, and Sugar - as well as the Cotton Bowl Classic. Under Paterno, Penn State won at least 3 bowl games each decade since 1970. He had 2 national championships (1982 and 1986), 5 undefeated seasons, and won the Big Ten championship 3 times since Penn State joined in 1993.

But his accomplishments are more than just on the field. Paterno announced his plans to conduct a "Grand Experiment" immediately following his hiring in 1966, in which he planned to make academics just as high a priority for student athletes as athletics. Penn State students have all finished above average academically in comparison to other D1 schools and the 78% graduation rate is higher than the 67% average for D1 athletes, second only to Northwestern in the Big Ten.

Paterno donated over $4 million to Penn State since his hiring and, in honor of the $13.5 million he helped raise for the expansion of the library in 1997, the expansion was named Paterno Library.

A statue outside Beaver Stadium exemplifies the important impact that Joe Paterno had on Penn State. This is also demonstrated by the rallies held by students on Paterno's lawn the night of his firing as well as the ongoing candlelight vigils being held after his death. Amongst the student body, he was a person to be honored and respected. Amongst his players and former players, he was family. Former player Matt Millen said, "I am numb...Forget the football aspect. We just lost a great contributor to our society. He was more than a football coach...He was a teacher who affected thousands with life-long lessons." Forget football? Ok, that brings us to....

Stage 2: Anger
Paterno's role in the Sandusky sex scandal cannot, should not, and will never be overlooked. Here's what happened: Jerry Sandusky was the assistant coach under Joe Paterno from 1969-1999, 23 years of which he also spent as the team's defensive coordinator. In 1977, Sandusky founded "The Second Mile", a charity to help troubled young boys. In 1998, he was investigated by multiple sources for sexual abuse but no charges were filed. He retried in 1999 but remained at Penn State in an office position for the football team.

In 2008, the mother of a high school freshman boy (Victim 1) reported that her son had been continuously sexually abused by Sandusky since 2005/2006, during which time the boy was involved in The Second Mile and Sandusky was an assistant coach of his school football team.

In December 2010, assistant coach Mike McQueary appeared before the Grand Jury investigating Victim 1's case and stated that, in 2002, he had witnessed Sandusky abusing a different boy, Victim 2, in Penn State's showers. He reported this incident to Joe Paterno. Paterno, in turn, informed athletic director Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, who was overseeing Penn State's police at the time. The two men, along with the school President, Graham Spanier, told Sandusky not to bring children into Penn State facilities. That was the end of the matter for McQueary, Schultz, Curley, Spanier...and Paterno, but not the end for at least 20 boys who would find themselves victims to Sandusky.

Paterno, along with the men he informed, insist that the details McQueary gave to the Grand Jury were not the same information he gave them. It didn't matter to the courts, though. The Grand Jury charged Schultz and Curley with failure to report suspected child abuse. Not facing any legal charges, Paterno announced that he would retire at the end of the 2011 season. The Board of Trustees, though, voted to terminate Paterno's job immediately and unceremoniously fired him in a phone call late one night five days into the scandal.

Stage 3: Bargaining
Two months after he was fired, Paterno attempted to explain the position he found himself in: "I didn't know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did." Paterno didn't face any legal obligations, but he did face some moral ones.

Joe Paterno went to Brown University; he won more games than any other college football coach; he was a smart man. When he says that he didn't know how to handle the situation, I don't believe him. That's an insult to his intelligence and to everyone who heard that statement. When you see someone having a heart attack, you call an ambulance. When you see a bank robbery, you call the police. When you see sexual abuse, you call anyone in any position of power to fix the situation. You could say that he did that by contacting the higher-ups in the school. When they didn't take action, he should have been smart enough to tell someone who would.

Another reason I don't believe Paterno's statement: Sandusky coached beneath Paterno for 31 years. In 1999, when he retired at age 55, he received the Assistant Coach of the Year Award. Why would he retire so young when he was obviously doing such a phenomenal job? Because in 1998, he was accused of sexual assault but no charges were filed. He remained at the school, just not in as an assistant coach. I think they all knew more than they let on, that Sandusky was forced to retire quietly in exchange for the school keeping quiet themselves. Maybe I'm a conspiracy theorist, but it's not the most far-fetched aspect about this whole situation.

Matt Millen said that Paterno was a teacher. A teacher generally guides the younger generation by example and through his wisdom and experience. By this definition, Joe Paterno taught the his students to take the least amount of necessary action as needed to clear your name of any legal obligations. It might be irrelevant, though, because the children that Paterno was supposed to be teaching and guiding were the same children that he allowed Sandusky to abuse. Millen said there is more than football and he was right. Maybe he should have told Joe Paterno that.

Stage 4: Depression
Yesterday on the radio, someone proposed that Joe Paterno died of a broken heart. He died of lung cancer, but the idea is still the same. Paterno had been at Penn State for 62 years. Nittany Lion football was his life and the students and players that he'd met during that time were his family and when he was cruelly (?) but justifiably (?) fired over the phone on the evening of November 9, the Board of Trustees did, in a way, take his life from him. He was sick, his reputation was ruined, his career was over - what else did he have to fight for?

He left behind a wife, five children, seventeen grandchildren, and countless numbers of players and students who loved him as their own family and they are all truly mourning right now. Paterno made inexcusably poor decisions during his lifetime, but dead is dead. His actions don't change the fact that a man died yesterday.

Stage 5: Acceptance
I remember when I first found out that Paterno was involved in the scandal. I've never been a Penn State fan nor a Joe Paterno fan; as I said before, I usually watched his press conference or him with a broken hip on the sidelines and just wondered how he could still do it. But I was stunned and I was sad because, with all the poor role models who are placed in the limelight, it's refreshing to have a person like Joe Paterno, who appears to be the exact opposite and, when the truth came out, it was hard to watch him fall. You can't look at Joe Paterno's accomplishments without looking at his failures, but the opposite can be said as well. Paterno was in imperfect human being whose faults were magnified because he was placed on such a high pedestal by so many for such a long time. He wasn't morally strong, he made bad decisions, he let a lot of bad things happen. He changed a lot of lives, he was loved by a lot of people, and he taught sportsmanship and leadership on the football field. He was human and now he's gone. Joe Paterno was born on December 21, 1926. This is my 26th blog and it is dedicated him. RIP.

The Sports Nerd