With a developing sense of disgust, I have followed recent public efforts by family members of late Penn State football coach Joe Paterno to distance him from others involved in the institutional cover-up of the horrific Jerry Sandusky child-rape scandal.
Statements issued through their attorney would attempt to discredit the work of former FBI director Louis J. Freeh, whose 267-page report (commissioned by the university) clearly places Paterno as a persuasive influence in the decisions to sweep information about Sandusky's life-altering indulgences with youngsters under a blue-and-white carpet; welcome the perpetrator back to campus; and move on to the next bowl game.
The Paterno family's counterattack began with a statement that it planned to initiate its own investigation. Then, following the announcement of unparalleled penalties directed against Penn State by the NCAA, there was a counter-announcement of intent to appeal.
Not by a university spokesperson. By the Paterno family.
The long-cultivated image
The responses of these people are indicative of an arrogance at the root of this unparalleled stain on major-college sports. If there's been any public remorse for the Sandusky victims by the Paternos, it's been buried beneath the obvious mission — that of somehow restoring the image of the family patriarch as a grandfatherly man who created an island of recruiting purity and educational emphasis amid a sea of collegiate athletic swill.
"The Grand Experiment" was Paterno's self-created caption for his reign. The suggestion was that his program would prove winning could be done within ethical boundaries and by young men who were winners in the classroom as well as on the field. "Saint Joe," he eventually was called, and if there was a derisive undertone in that label when applied by fellow coaches and other skeptics, the man who was the target seemed not to notice.
Paterno's most formidable ally in creating that image, which essentially was a work of fiction, was geography. Located in north central Pennsylvania, the town of State College is conveniently distanced from the area's major media markets. Reporters from Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and New York usually have been limited to game-day appearances; thus Penn State's programs have been subjected to less scrutiny than most others have.
In a recent Time magazine article, Matt Paknis, a Penn State graduate assistant during the 1980s, offered the following: "There was this projection outside of Penn State that he was the dean, this nice old guy. That's the furthest thing from the truth. He ruled with an iron fist. You had to fit into the approval system that was out there. There wasn't a lot of challenging, saying, 'What's going on here?'"
Reading that triggered personal recollections. From 1966 until 1982 (after working earlier at the Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph), I was a sports reporter, then columnist, for the Philadelphia Daily News.
Penn State never was a regular assignment, but there were enough contacts to prompt the "What's going on here?" question. I learned that you either supported the Paterno program and self-created image without question — or you were, in a manner of speaking, sidelined.
I offer two examples.
During the mid-1970s, Tony Dorsett was an All-American running back for the University of Pittsburgh. (He later became an All-Pro for the Dallas Cowboys.) With Pitt hosting Notre Dame during one of those seasons, I made the journey across state and watched Dorsett run wild against the Irish.
During a postgame interview, Dorsett was asked if Penn State recruited him. Not up front, he said, but added that after he'd signed with Pitt, there was contact. He was asked to meet with a group from State College at a clandestine site north of Pittsburgh. Paterno, Dorsett said, was with the group, urging him to dump Pitt and assist the Nittany Lions in continuing to be a dominant power. Dorsett chose to honor his agreement.
The following day, I attempted to reach Paterno for comment. The call was not returned. But, after an article quoting Dorsett appeared, the phone rang.
It was Paterno, and he was livid.
"Stories like that undermine our goal of building a new image for Eastern football," I was told.
My reply was to say, "That seems an odd way of doing it. Isn't Pitt in the East?"
He hung up.
Example No. 2: I received a call one afternoon from the late Frank Dolson, columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, a close friend and then-president of the Philadelphia Sportswriters Association. Dolson said he'd just been contacted by a sports information person at State College and told that Joe Paterno, who was to speak at the association's annual banquet, wanted a complimentary table reserved for several area high school players (and families) who were being recruited by Penn State.
Dolson pointed out that doing so would violate NCAA rules, saying, "I thought I was doing Paterno a favor, alerting them to what could be a serious problem. That didn't seem to matter."
"Expect a call from Paterno," I told him.
It came, from an angry man, complete with another, "We're trying to build football in the East" lecture.
The East, as defined by Paterno, was Penn State, and the "building" included another promotional brick or two for a self-varnished reputation.
Many in my profession were stunned to learn that Joe Paterno had been a partner, apparently decisive, in a tragedy prolonged by the Jerry Sandusky cover-up.
I am not one of them.
Longtime sportswriter, editor and author Tom Cushman now divides his time between Colorado Springs and San Diego.