Paterno's Downfall One for the Ages


In the end, the university leaders who wanted rid of Joe Paterno could not even do it face to face. After 62 years at Penn State, he was fired with a phone call.

As departures of coaching icons go, this might be the most tragic.
It does not come with the one-punch tantrum of Woody Hayes, the anger mismanagement of Bob Knight, the white lies of Jim Tressel, or the what-have-you-done-for-us-lately impatience with Bobby Bowden.

Neither is there the glowing unsullied fulfillment of John Wooden or Tony La Russa. Or the simple one-man decision that it was time to go, by Dean Smith.

Or, let us hope, the finality of Bear Bryant; retired one month, dead the next.

This stands alone, both for reason and sadness and inexplicable shock. That was plain Wednesday night, in the tumult of a packed press conferences, with a board of trustees trying to somehow get its university through a sudden hurricane.

The word that came to mind was "chaos." But then, no one seems to have their footing right now in State College.

The reporters -- or whoever got into the room -- shouted questions over one another. John Surma, the vice chairman at the microphone, looked as if he would rather be anywhere else in the world.

Apparently it was decided that the media was so pervasive and the situation so delicate, no one could even go to Paterno's house in person.

There were questions about protests in the street, backlash from students. And hardly ever was the name "Jerry Sandusky" even mentioned. College football has never seen a night like it.
But then, this is far, far beyond college football.

The words from Paterno's statement earlier Wednesday appeared to come from a man in pain. He said he was devastated. He said it was one of the great sorrows of his life. He said he wishes he had done more. He wanted to coach the last few games and then retire.

I have no doubt every syllable came straight from the soul, and that is the heartbreak of it all. The ultimate irony here is that a very good person will forever be attached, and bear some guilt, with a very, very bad story.

All that he did has been overwhelmed, by what he didn't do. He wanted one last request granted. No chance, it turned out.
Read the ugly details of this case, and you can understand the instinct of wanting heads to roll. Now. Paterno's career is ending in a nightmare scenario, and he is being held accountable in the most public way imaginable. His name will never be as clean and shiny as it might have been. A remarkable life's work is stained.

Would you desire such punishment? An opportunity to finish out did not seem unreasonable. I am still not sure justice was particularly served by the quick axe.

But then the board of trustees faces a storm of unspeakable proportions. You can understand its decision, without agreeing.

It is absolutely stunning, what has happened so quickly in Happy Valley.

A week ago, no one could have imagined the words "Joe Paterno" and "child sex abuse scandal" would ever, ever appear in the same sentence.

A week ago, conventional wisdom on how Paterno might leave coaching would have been the same as always: He would die on the job.

Well, part of him probably just did.

A week ago, he was the standard for propriety in the polluted waters of big-time college sport. Now, he has been portrayed as a symbol of what happens when that big-time college sport is too concerned with protecting its own. But this is so much more complicated than that.

A week ago, his legacy was as secure as gold in Fort Knox. Today, it isn't.

How badly has it been tarnished? I would suggest we'll need a little time to answer that soberly, away from the current bedlam. There is no way to judge in this noise.

Paterno teared up when he talked to his players Wednesday. His statement suggests a shattered man, hoping for a decent end, which he didn't get.

List all the famous downfalls you want. None ever faced a day so dark as this one.

Contact Mike Lopresti at


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