Column: Think he’d walk away? You don’t know Joe.
Once the question no longer was if Joe must go, but when, someone had to have the guts to make the call. Paterno did. He said he wanted to see this through to the bitter end – of the season, anyway – and dared the Penn State board of trustees to stop him.
Over the phone.
”We were unable to find a way to do that in person without causing further distraction,” board vice chair John Surma said. Not exactly a new chapter of ”Profiles in Courage.”
Like everything else in this still-evolving mess, Paterno’s acknowledgment that he shared plenty of responsibility for it came way too late. Fashioning a graceful exit was his only chance to prove it and he’d earned that right. Mock the sincerity of the statement he released Wednesday morning if you want:
”It is one of the great sorrows of my life,” it said. ”With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”
Just remember, Paterno is still the only person in a position of authority at the school to take even that small step so far. And that includes the two dozen or so trustees who sat on a stage behind Surma for the announcement, expressing ”outrage” over the course of events but handing off all of the blame.
Two of Paterno’s superiors, charged with covering up a 2002 incident that the coach reported and prosecutors allege was part of former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s serial child sex abuse, have their lawyers sifting through technicalities for ways to keep them out of jail. Penn State President Graham Spanier, shown the door at the same time as Paterno, has said little in public beyond expressing support for the same two administrators.
Little about sports is truly ironic, but this may be: The same old-school qualities that made Paterno the most celebrated coach of his era until last weekend – a steadfast refusal to change with the times – also made it possible to avert his eyes to the very real harm carried out right under his gaze. As he and the university are learning to their enduring regret, blind loyalty often comes with a steep price.
So does maintaining a very public profile for that matter, something that Paterno’s decision would have guaranteed. The Nittany Lions play Nebraska at home Saturday, travel to Ohio State and then Wisconsin to close out the regular season. A spot in the Big Ten Championship game Dec 3 remains a very real possibility and even a bowl game after that.
Paterno’s statement said he wanted ”to keep my commitments to my players and staff and finish the season with dignity and determination. And then I will spend the rest of my life doing everything I can to help this university.”
You could have argued that stepping down immediately would help the university more than all Paterno’s past deeds combined. That was the board’s view – unanimously no less. And it was possible, too, that Paterno might have arrived at that same conclusion himself after the Nebraska game, either discouraged by how his players respond to the burden of so much attention or shamed by the way he’s received. Now, those issues are moot.
But people who thought Paterno wasn’t willing to risk his job on a dare don’t know Joe. He was intent on doing it his way, or not at all. One line in particular from his statement early in the day read like Paterno was trying to jam his finger in the board’s eye:
”At this moment the board of trustees should not spend a single minute discussing my status. They have far more important matters to address.”
Apparently not. But the debate over whether the board made the right call is a long way from finished.
”He’s put a lot of time in and a lot of effort and I believe he deserves it,” Anthony Adams, current Chicago Bear and former Penn State defender, said about letting Paterno finish the season.
”He used to always say different stuff if you were late to a meeting. In college there were 120-something different student athletes. If you were late, `You’re not a minute late, you’re 120 minutes late, because you just took a minute from every player that we have on the team.’
”At the time you’re just going, `Why you keep naggin’ and naggin’?’ ” Adams recalled. ”But, I mean, you don’t realize the type of impact they have on your life until you leave.”
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org. Follow him at http://Twitter.com/JimLitke.