SEC Football: Don't Slam Missouri Coach Gary Pinkel for Defending Joe Paterno

Dan KuklaCorrespondent IIIJuly 19, 2012

ST. LOUIS, MO - SEPTEMBER 5: Head coach Gary Pinkel of the University of Missouri Tigers looks on from the sideline against the University of Illinois Fighting Illini during the State Farm Arch Rivalry on September 5, 2009 at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Missouri.  The Tigers beat the Fighting Illini 37-9.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Gary Pinkel boldly took his Missouri Tigers into the SEC football world by defending Joe Paterno at SEC Media Day.

Before grabbing your torches and pitchforks, let's take a look at what Pinkel actually said and not just overreact to a headline.

“It’s such a tragedy,” Pinkel said to a small group of reporters, according to Blair Kerkhoff of the Kansas City Star. “Joe Paterno is a friend. I got to know him professionally. You can’t take away the greatness of this man. He was a great man. And however you analyze this, you can’t erase all that this guy has done. You can’t do that. Nobody can do that.”

The quote reminds us that Pinkel knew Paterno personally. This is important context to consider before completely crucifying him for defending a man who, according to the Freeh Report, "never demonstrated any concern for the safety and well-being of Sandusky’s victims until after Sandusky’s arrest."

Kerkhoff notes that coaches will be bombarded with Paterno questions at media days. We can expect them to either avoid the subject or give mostly positive responses. Fans and media shouldn't take this as an endorsement of child abuse. They're just reluctant to bad-mouth a friend and professional peer.

Pinkel is wrong, however, about Paterno's greatness.

We can take Paterno's greatness away because we are the ones who gave him that greatness in the first place.

College football coaches are regularly immortalized as gods by fans and media. It often takes a scandal for us to realize that these men are in fact just that—men.

Jim Tressel was hailed for his character and integrity before lying about his knowledge of players receiving improper benefits at Ohio State. Rick Pitino is considered a coaching legend in the state of Kentucky despite admitted involvement in a sex scandal. Bobby Petrino was lauded as a savior in Arkansas before pursuing an inappropriate relationship of his own.

Even Syracuse basketball head coach Jim Boeheim, who like Paterno showed no compassion or concern for the young people he ostensibly molds, is still often celebrated as a great leader.

These men are only seen as "great" because we say they are great. Without fans and media singing their praises, all the wins and good deeds in the world would only amount to—how does the Bible say it?—"filthy rags."

So yes, Coach Pinkel, we can take Paterno's greatness away from him. His greatness was ours to give and now ours to take away, however just or unjust that may be.

It certainly does not erase all the good he has done. But all the good he has done never erased the fact that Paterno was always just a man.

His recent sins didn't bring him back down to that level. They just reminded us of what was always true. We all know from first-hand experience the flawed nature of being human.

The lesson here is simple but rarely applied: Stop immortalizing college coaches and athletic programs.

It's easy to point a shameful finger at Paterno now. Piling your disgust on Penn State isn't just a trendy popular opinion; it's actually trending.

But what about all those other supposedly unscathed college coaches and teams we love so dearly? We have learned nothing if we go on deifying them. Your ranting column, comment, tweet, status and/or blog post means nothing if it does not come with changed behavior.

Our glorification of coaches and programs is what enables these scandals to take place. Joe Paterno would not have "concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky’s child abuse" (via Freeh Report) in an effort to protect Penn State Football's legacy and image if there was nothing to protect.

Paterno acted as if Penn State Football is more important than children and their safety because of how football was treated at Penn State. Likewise, Tressel felt the need to compromise his own character and integrity—two qualities he often preached to his players—to protect Ohio State Football because of how football is treated at Ohio State.

We are all hypocrites if we crucify Paterno and Penn State yet go on worshiping college football. If you don't like what happened there, then act like it. Don't follow your condemning rant with a return to status quo.

Change your behavior.

You don't like what happened at Penn State. I don't either, but I also don't like hypocrites.