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Kovacevic: Paterno's legacy a sad, sorry end

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By Dejan Kovacevic
Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011
 

UNIVERSITY PARK — They call it "Paternoville," that corner of Beaver Stadium where hundreds of students in tents camp out for tickets to Penn State's next football game. It's right near the Joe Paterno bronze statue, the Joe Paterno Library and the campus ice cream shop that features a "Peachy Paterno" flavor.

All melted away in a single, seismic minute.

Who would have believed it?

On the Wednesday that will forever change Happy Valley — the place, the people and maybe even the adjective — Paterno and university president Graham Spanier were fired by the university's board of trustees. In Paterno's case, that blew apart his statement earlier in the day that he would retire after the current season, and it ended an unparalleled 46-year run as the Nittany Lions' larger-than-life coach.

Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley will take over as interim coach, beginning Saturday against Nebraska in what would have been Paterno's final home game.

On a scale of 1 to 10, this was a Big Ten.

It was 10 p.m. when John Surma, the vice chairman of the trustees and the well-spoken CEO of Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel, spoke these words: "Joe Paterno is no longer the head football coach, effective immediately," drawing an audible gasp from the hotel ballroom filled with reporters.

What a sad, sorry ending for one Joseph Vincent Paterno, a man revered for so long across our commonwealth and beyond.

Paterno, showing all of his 84 years these days but still having overseen an 8-1 season on the field, owns the NCAA Division I record with 409 victories, has recorded five perfect seasons and has made 36 bowl appearances with 24 victories. Without debate, he'll go down as the most accomplished coach college football has ever known.

But, oh, how he went down.

Paterno and Spanier, whose resignation was forced and accepted by the board, were the latest and largest to fall in Penn State's child rape scandal, stemming from the grand jury investigation that charged former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky with 40 counts related to sexual abuse of children.

Only time and due process will tell if Paterno and Spanier are culpable legally, though state Attorney General Linda Kelly has said Paterno is not a target. But the board's verdict last night might as well have been capital punishment to a man who spent 61 years at Penn State and, really, personified the institution.

The day began, as has happened so often in the past, with Paterno calling his own audibles.

He issued a statement in the morning saying "I have decided" to retire and that he was acting in "the best interests" of the university by doing so. He added, "At this moment, the Board of Trustees should not spend a single minute discussing my status. They have far more important matters to address. I want to make this as easy for them as I possibly can."

Yeah, you can imagine those trustees really appreciated the gesture. Maybe that final get-off-my-lawn gesture fired up the dwindling portion of the board that had supported Paterno. Maybe it sealed the deal.

"The past seven days have been absolutely terrible for the Penn State community," Surma said, cool and composed in the face of a high-strung group of reporters and even some students. "But the outrage we feel is nothing compared to the physical and psychological damage alleged to have been done" to the alleged victims.

Good for the board for removing both men.

To that point, its boldest response had been to form a committee that will investigate what's already been investigated. This was what was needed. This was the first real statement that the university was taking seriously a case that has horrified the nation.

Whatever comes of this in court, Paterno and Spanier were both prominent figures in the grand jury investigation. What's best for the university does not necessarily have to match or rely upon the legal outcome. They had to go.

And good for the board for not prioritizing football.

Stop and imagine what it might have been like to see Paterno on the field Saturday. Imagine the TV shots of Paterno and assistant coach Mike McQueary, the witness to what authorities described as Sandusky's rape of a 10-year-old boy in 2002, standing on the sideline. Imagine how much longer this story would have stayed on the front pages — Sandusky's preliminary hearing won't come until December — and stained the university and its football program.

How selfish of Paterno.

The part of his statement Wednesday that rightly drew the most attention was his reference to the 2002 assault. According to the grand jury, McQueary informed Paterno the next day. Paterno told his superiors but took no further action.

In his initial statement on Sunday, Paterno said, "I did what I was supposed to."

In this statement, he went further: "This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more."

If even a sliver of the allegations against Sandusky are true, there will be others who feel more firmly about that, too. And there will be many, many more who finger Paterno for not taking more aggressive action.

Is this how we'll remember him?

Will it be the legend, the champion, the benefactor who has donated $4 million to the university he's called home for six decades and helped build it into a world-class institution?

Or will it be the old man poking his head out of his living-room window on Tuesday night, asking those hundreds of cheering students in front of his house if they're coming out to the Nebraska game?

The case is far from over, but a large cloud of delusion has been lifted.

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