Leadership finally makes appearance as Penn State trustees do right thing

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 10, 2011 - 6:30 AM

By firing Joe Paterno, the school's board of trustees at last wrested control in a situation that had run amok.

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The Penn State Board of Trustees announced late Wednesday night that 84-year-old Joe Paterno had been removed from his position as head football coach immediately and that President Graham Spanier also was dismissed as fallout of a disturbing child sex abuse scandal.

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Joe Paterno announced Wednesday that his 46-year head-coaching tenure at Penn State will end after this season. Thankfully, the school's Board of Trustees had other plans.

The board announced late Wednesday night that the 84-year-old Paterno was removed from his position immediately and that President Graham Spanier also was dismissed as fallout of a disturbing child sex abuse scandal.

Finally, someone tied to Penn State showed some leadership at a time of crisis. Unfortunately, it's too late to help the victims, but maybe this is a start to the healing process.

Paterno's last grasp at power and control came when he attempted to dictate the terms of his exit, but he had lost his time-honored right to call the shots this time. He's no longer the moral compass for an idyllic community affectionately known as Happy Valley.

This too will be his legacy, along with the 400-plus victories, the enormous sums of money he raised for the university and his staying power in a profession where turnover is inescapable.

Paterno and Penn State once stood as a pillar for all that was right with college athletics. They did things the right way. They avoided major rules infractions, their players graduated, the program exuded class. At least that was the perception. That was the image they created, right along with Paterno's Coke-bottle glasses and classic uniforms.

But that is not the picture we see now. Paterno will forever be remembered for his inaction when a situation cried out for character and leadership. He won't be able to remove the stain of the worst scandal in the history of college athletics.

We've become conditioned to wrongdoing in college football with the rash of scandals in recent years. But what happened at Penn State goes way beyond the scope of reckless boosters and players getting free tattoos. This involves the heinous act of young boys being sexually assaulted and the lack of response by adults in confronting it.

Some will argue that Paterno did what he was supposed to do when a graduate assistant alerted him in 2002 that he witnessed longtime defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky sexually assaulting a young boy in the showers at the team facility. Sure, Paterno fulfilled his legal responsibility by taking the information to his boss (as if Paterno really has any superiors). But he failed miserably in his moral obligation.

There is some discrepancy over the exact details that Paterno received, but he acknowledged the graduate assistant was "distraught" over what he witnessed between Paterno's trusted friend and the 10-year-old boy. Paterno allegedly didn't pursue the matter further. He didn't seek to help the child. This has been written elsewhere, but the point is spot on: Imagine if that young boy had been Paterno's grandson? You think he would have done more than just tell his boss?

"This is a tragedy," Paterno said in a statement. "It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more."

Instead, he and the school allowed Sandusky to keep an office at the facility, even though they were aware of his despicable act. He even worked out in the Penn State weight room last week, according to Yahoo! Sports.

Sandusky has been charged with sexually abusing eight boys. A ninth victim reportedly came forward this week. Sadly, that number likely will climb.

The school's lack of leadership and moral culpability in this case is just sickening. Why didn't anyone step up and do something to stop it? Why did the 28-year-old graduate assistant immediately call his father instead of helping the child? How could they let this happen?

Why? Because by all appearances they were more concerned about the football program and their brand than they were doing the right thing. They were more concerned with preserving the Happy Valley mystique than they were addressing a serious problem right there in their football facility.

The hubris in this situation is disturbing. You see it all over college athletics these days to lesser degrees, but Penn State is now the poster child.

It was on display again as thousands of students flocked to Paterno's home Tuesday night for a mini-pep rally that included cheers and JoePa leading a "Beat Nebraska" chant. Unreal. Wonder how Sandusky's alleged victims felt? Where is their emotional support?

The trustees are prepared to gut the place and start over. They had no choice. Anyone associated with this has to go.

That included Spanier, who committed one of the worst public relations blunders imaginable when he announced in a statement that athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz -- who are charged with perjury -- had his "unconditional support."

The school also made the right decision in not allowing Paterno to finish the season. He had become a distraction, and the emotion and vitriol aren't going away anytime soon. That understandably was a difficult and emotional decision, but the situation demanded it.

So this is how it ends. Joe Paterno was fired for not doing what was morally right. Think about that.

It is a remarkable fall from grace for a man and coaching career that a week ago were viewed in a much different light. So much has changed since then. The anger borne from what we've heard and learned doesn't allow us to remember all the positive things that happened before now, at least not yet and maybe not forever.

Chip Scoggins • ascoggins@startribune.com

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