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Starkey: Lessons from Paterno, Tressel

| Thursday, Nov. 17, 2011

We should all be mortified at how we worship college coaches.

It's sickening.

We turn men who win football games into living gods. We allow them to build empires and wield unchecked power. We deny their wrongdoings in the face of hard evidence. We ascribe to them all manner of righteous attributes when 99 percent of us know almost nothing about them.

I've been part of the problem.

Just last fall, I went to Penn State and wrote a glowing piece about Joe Paterno's 400th victory. I made it about more than winning. I interviewed a woman who said, "I think (Paterno) likes the idea of winning, but I think he cares more about his players as students and people. I admire him for that."

Looking back on my next paragraph, I cringe:

Call me naive, but I think she's right. I believed Sue Paterno earlier this week, too, when she said it's not the milestones that are important to her husband but "the young men you develop."

That might well have been true. So might this: Other young men — boys, actually — were being sexually assaulted by one of Paterno's ex-coaches, if a state grand jury presentment is accurate. And nobody, including Paterno, kept Jerry Sandusky away from the football facilities even after a disturbing allegation in 2002 and a ban on Sandusky bringing children onto campus.

That said, the purpose here is not to demonize Paterno. This isn't about demonizing coaches.

It's about the pathetic practice of deifying them.

Media, fans and administrators advance the myth that coaches such as Paterno and Jim Tressel represent a higher form of life.

Those two were fired amid scandals and presumably will be far away from Ohio Stadium on Saturday, as Tom Bradley leads Penn State against Luke Fickell's Buckeyes.

I just wonder: If Paterno and Tressel were guilty of gross negligence — Paterno regarding a much more serious matter, obviously — what about us• What were we doing when these men were building their empires?

In the wake of the Penn State scandal, are we reflexively trying to defend Paterno?

Multiple examples tell us that protecting a coach and his program often comes at the expense of values such as honesty, fair play and, in the Penn State case, perhaps even the welfare of children.

If you think I cringe at my Paterno story, imagine how Jim Dent, then of the San Antonio News-Express, must feel about this long-ago column passage: "According to the values we should all set for ourselves, Joseph Vincent Paterno is the most divine human to ever coach college football."

Dave Anderson, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for the New York Times, once wrote, "Joe Paterno's legacy isn't his won-lost record. His legacy is himself. His integrity. His guts to do the right thing."

At the funeral of his father-in-law, Hugh Rodham, former President Bill Clinton said, "Until his dying day, (Rodham) thought if there was a perfect person on earth, his name was Joe Paterno."

Indeed, we glorify these men as if they are cleansing sins, winning wars or curing cancer. Schools pay them far more than the people on campus who really are trying to cure cancer.

When trouble knocks, denial greets it at the door. The depth of said denial is proportionate to the height of the coach's pedestal.

How else to explain Ohio State officials recently unveiling a mural of the disgraced Tressel inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center?

The sweater-vested Tressel came off as the most pious of coaches. He beat Michigan all the time, too, and even appeared to have a direct line to the divine, as evidenced by the title of one of his books: "Promises from God on Achieving Your Best."

If Tressel ever updates the book, he'll have to include a chapter on how he was forced to resign amid NCAA allegations that he withheld information and lied to keep key players eligible. He could talk about leaving a mess at Youngstown State, as well.

Maybe someday, Tressel will get a statue outside Ohio Stadium, matching the one of Paterno at Beaver Stadium.

The New York Times' Maureen Dowd recently quoted former Washington Star columnist David Israel on the coach-worshipping phenomenon. Israel called our sickness a "delusion that the ability to win football games indicates anything at all about your character or intelligence other than that you can win football games."

The lesson here is obvious.

Will we ever learn?

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