To really understand the firing of Joe Paterno, we have to see it as a story of a man and a small town. As I noted before, there were a lot of similarities with Brett Farve’s coming out of retirement and leaving Green Bay. In both situations, it is the story of an iconic figure, and in Paterno’s case, the figure who was multi-generational pillar of the community, who got his community and himself engulfed in something that was much bigger than either party knew how to deal with.
The grand jury report indicting Jerry Sandusky came out on November 5, but remained a back burner issue for at least couple of days as college football played its yearly “game of the century” between LSU and Alabama. Then the news cycle began, and as people began to dig into the report, they found it startingly. Former Penn State assistant Jerry Sandusky abused under aged boys, witnessed twice. One witness was Mike McQueary, a former grad assistant and currently a full-time Penn State assistant, was one of the witnesses of a 2002 incident. And McQueary then went and told Joe Paterno.
The shock was palpable: sex scandal at a major college football program, which Joe Paterno knew about and only passed up to a superior? The national media was not quick to call for Paterno’s job, and instead began to make a trek to Penn State to question Paterno about the incident at his Tuesday press conference. Upon seeing the number of national media that would be there, Penn State got defensive, at first telling the media that question would have to be restricted to the week’s game against Nebraska, and then canceled Paterno’s press conference altogether when the national reporters weren’t going to play by their rules. This already speaks to a divide between Penn State and Paterno; when the university knew that Paterno would go out and get grilled by the big dogs, they choose to keep him in hiding. It was after all, the keep-in-the-family culture Paterno had built at Penn State. And of course they were also keeping Paterno from hanging them out to dry.
Paterno, however, took a different line. He came out to talk to the reporters on his front lawn that evening, telling them that he did indeed want to address the charges, but he would have to do it at a later time. Paterno’s modest, accessible house also allowed a group of protesting students to rally on his front lawn, and he of course did what the university must have been dreading: he went out on his lawn, told the students they should say a prayer for the victims, and then lead the students into cries of “We Are Penn State!” But Paterno’s arrogance over the school was heightened the next morning, when, now realizing there was no way he could leave on his own terms, he told the Penn State Board of trustees in a statement (not released by the university) he would retire at the end of the season and that they “should not spend a single minute discussing my status.” Once again, he was the old man in charge, not letting anyone tell him what to do.
In all the coverage of Paterno’s eventually firing, a clip that sticks out in my mind is one of a 2002 interview with Paterno, who at the time was in the middle of four loosing seasons in five years. In it, Paterno said, “I’m not going to retire when everyone wants me to retire, I’m going to retire when I think it’s best for Penn State.” In that moment, I saw a wicked twinkle in Paterno’s eyes; so many times since Paterno turned seventy, the media kept portraying him as a jolly, quirky old grandfather, but in this moment, I saw something different: self-reverence. I am greater than Penn State. I am Penn State, and no one else tells me what to do.
This is the moment where the adults had to step in. No man can say what universally best for other men. The board finally had to stop hiding behind the excuse that Paterno had the right to retire on his own terms because he’d forsaken his right to protect the university.
One of the great things I’ve found about twitter is that it gives you slivers of insight into how the public reacts to major events as they happened. I love to follow my twitter feed during Husker games on a typical Saturday, and again on a NFL Sunday. Searching for a team on twitter really gives you insight into how a people think. Ohio State’s fans, for example, can be foolishly preoccupied with a Michigan loss than with their own team’s poor performance. And one of the more revealing parts where twitter gave me some context was at the press conference where Joe Paterno’s dismissal was announced, as the reporters in the room were instantly mocked in the digital realm for their fan-like reaction to Paterno’s firing.
To be fair, there were some Penn State students in that room, and we can’t expect rational reactions from them. They’re students. But the shock from the news media in the room is inexcusable. First of all, it had already been tweeted out that Paterno was fired roughly fifteen minutes before the announcement. Maybe a tweet isn’t an official report, but it should give you a heads up. People have already been talking about this, and now the Board of Trustees has called a meeting at 10:00 at night, meaning this news can’t wait until morning. There’s a good chance Paterno’s getting canned here.
Secondly, you are the media. I understand that you are human and emotional, but still, fans are going to look to you and in some sense, you influence their reaction. You have to be journalist and ask responsible questions, not be accusatory and ask the Board if they just fired Paterno because they’ve had it in for him since 2004.
But as for the Board, they did what they had to do. They were paying the price for allowing Paterno to dominate them way past his retirement age, and now that the university was in crisis. Penn State simply couldn’t let Joe Paterno, the clear enabler of child molester Jerry Sandusky to walk onto their field, into what would undoubtedly turn into a pep rally for his final home game, further humiliating the university and hurting the victims of Sandusky.
Granted, the Board of Trustees probably owed Paterno more than sending a messenger to his house with a number for him to call so they could tell him he was fired. Personally, I believed that all long term relationships need to be ended in person and not over the phone (or text message or e-mail for that matter). Although in the case of Paterno, the university president had come to Paterno’s house to try to talk him politely into retirement and was unceremoniously kicked out. For someone who hung on as long as Paterno, he really doesn’t have any right to complain about being fired over the phone.
The rallying and rioting around Penn State that night could have been expected, but in this instance, there was an added layer of insensitive. These people were out in force because a man who used his position to allow child sexual abuse to happen. Yes, Paterno is only face of Penn State football many of these kids’ parents have know, but what must the victims of abuse be thinking when they are watching this?
So that was the end for Joe Paterno. In an insightful saying, Todd Blackledge, quarterback for Paterno’s 1982 National Title team, said in an interview that he often felt that the longer Paterno continued to coach, the worse the end of his coaching career would be, although I doubt that even Blackledge thought that Paterno was guilty of enabling a child molester. The ultimately irony of the situation was that, in the first game after Paterno was gone as Penn State’s head coach, the Nittany Lions played an old rival, Nebraska, a school whose legendary head coach followed a course to retirement that was completely the opposite of Paterno’s.
Tom Osborne retired from coaching twenty-five season at age sixty; Paterno coached twenty-four seasons after he turned sixty. Osborne left at the top of his profession, winning sixty games in his final five season, while Paterno hadn’t had an undefeated season in seventeen years; 1994, the first of Osborne’s three national titles. And Osborne went out and did what Paterno possibly feared doing: find meaning and significance outside of football. In fact, Osborne has now held two jobs as high profile as his coaching job: he spent three years as a member of the House of Representatives, and then returned to Nebraska as Athletic Director, now overseeing the many building projects for football, basketball, and the prominent volleyball. I remember a quote from Paterno when Osborne retired in 1997, where Paterno speculated that between himself, Bobby Bowden, and Tom Osborne, Osborne would be the last to retire. In a sense, he was right.