How to Think About Joe Paterno When All Is Said and Done

Paul WardContributor IIIMarch 16, 2012

Joe Paterno Memorial Serivice
Joe Paterno Memorial SeriviceJeff Swensen/Getty Images

As the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State grinds on, still now spreading dirt and dissension, the campaign to be on the university's board of trustees and set the matter straight has become a media affair. 

A financial planner, and prominent university booster, named Anthony Lubrano (PSU class of '82) is trying to make himself the front-runner with a five-minute video/tribute to Joe Paterno.

In the video, shown on local Happy Valley TV stations on March 15th, Lubrano insists that whatever scandal there has been, it is not a Penn State scandal or a Penn State football scandal, and it is certainly not a Joe Paterno scandal.   

Whose scandal is it? He doesn't say.

What he does say is that the university's board of trustees needs to apologize publicly to the Paterno family for the rude way in which it fumbled the coach's dismissal, but also for presuming his guilt, without some form of due process. The notion is that Paterno never got to explain himself fully.

Moreover, Lubrano wants the university to bestow Paterno head-football-coach emeritus status posthumously. 

Lubrano's appeal, part of a $25,000 media effort, includes footage of JoePa in the midst of pep talks in the locker room, pacing the sideline, giving thanks to his players and other sentimental moments. The video ends with the edict, “Coach Joe Paterno always believed in us, so why then board of trustees didn’t you believe in him?”

For sure, Joe Paterno has been given his due. Everyone, high and low, has recounted his greatness as a coach, his drive to win, and his singular, and relentless commitment to family, community, university and sport. Perhaps in that order; perhaps, not.

Nevertheless, his depth of commitment was also his downfall, and that should not be forgotten in the desire to mountainize his place in PSU history.

For that reason, it may be best not to remember the man too closely. Better not to dwell, for example, on the night that he led the “We are Penn State” cheers on his front lawn with fans gathered after Sandusky’s arrest.

Better not to look too deeply into his friendships with some university administrators who clearly didn’t do the right thing when they needed to…

And better not to linger over that fateful night he received a handwritten note to call vice chairman of the board of trustees, John Surma, who wished to relay three points to the coach: 1) Joe, you're no longer PSU's football coach, 2) the board is sorry to deliver the news in a phone call, but under the circumstances, with all the media around your house, there seems to be no alternative and 3) your benefits will not be affected and you are still to be regarded as coach emeritus.  

Paterno hung up after point No. 1.

This suggests that stripping him of his coachhood was what he cared about. Doing that was to kill him. And some argue it did.  

But that's the point—and despite what Lubrano claims in his video—football seemed finally to have been more important to Joe Paterno than anything else.

And maybe in 2001, when he heard those allegations against his friend, Jerry Sandusky, he just could not grasp the significance of what he was hearing; he just could not see beyond his beloved game and respond to what he himself knew to be abhorrent. He just could not take a stand and accept all that that would mean.

The whole thing was just too hard—too unthinkable.

And maybe part of the reason was that JoePa was as insulated from his surroundings as the community was, and remains, from its surroundings now.

In that sense, Mr. Lubrano's message is a step back, although no question all the trustees probably need to be replaced. Franco Harris, among others, is correct.

Still, the board owes no apologies to the family of Joe Paterno, save for the mangled firing.  

And it's nonsense to say that the Penn State community cannot move forward until such an apology is made. If there's any apology to be made, and there is, it is to the victims and the community. The apology is for not showing leadership, for not being more fearless in a crisis. For putting the university and its affiliations ahead of moral responsibility.  

Of course, the board cannot make that apology because that would imply guilt, which might mean more compensation in any civil litigation.

In the end, to move forward doesn't Happy Valley need to look itself in the eye—the whole community, not just the university—look itself in the eye and consider the price it has paid for glorifying a man and a sport?

A March 16th poll suggests support, particularly by older people, for renaming Beaver Stadium to honor Paterno. Fine. Do it. But vote no for Lubrano. Don't set the clock back.