Jerry Sandusky's Legacy: A Cautionary Tale for Virginia Football

Ben GibsonSenior Analyst IJuly 23, 2012

The year is 2000 and Virginia football has just said goodbye to the greatest coach in their program's history, George Welsh.

The former Navy coach went to Charlottesville where he was warned that the Virginia job was a coaching graveyard. He turned around the program and made the Cavaliers one of the more desirable jobs in the country that year.

So much so that Welsh was able to use his Penn State roots.

Before becoming head coach at Navy, Welsh was an assistant coach at Happy Valley with the Nittany Lions. There, he became one of Joe Paterno's most trusted lieutenants.

Their relationship was close; they stayed in contact for years after their working relationship ended. In fact, Penn State had a series with the Virginia Cavaliers scheduled right after Welsh retired.

That is why one of the top candidates for the Virginia job was Penn State's linebacker coach, Jerry Sandusky.

Back then, obviously, Sandusky's crimes were not publicly known, and Virginia officials admit that he was indeed interviewed for the position.

I had an opportunity one day to speak with a graduate assistant for Virginia in 2001, and he said that Sandusky was going to be the next Virginia football coach from what he was being told.

Then, the Cavaliers avoided what would have been one of the biggest embarrassments in the program's history.

New York Jets head coach and former Virginia player Al Groh expressed interest in the job.

Some report that Sandusky was offered the job  officially at Virginia first but could not agree on a contract until Groh's name became available. Others wonder if Penn State might have tipped off the Cavaliers that there was a reason why the successful assistant coach disappeared so suddenly from the program.

It was not Sandusky but Groh who heard his name called as the next Cavalier football coach. An alumnus with NFL connections and years of head coaching experience looked like a slam-dunk hire for the Virginia Cavaliers, but it is a scary reminder of what could have been for Virginia.

Many questions still remain about that fateful time in Virginia's history.

How much did Virginia know about the situation?

If Penn State did not warn the University of Virginia, how could they possibly justify that action?

What would have happened if Virginia had hired Sandusky?

The situation is nightmarish for any Virginia fan to stomach and helps give them a special kind of empathy for what is transpiring now at Penn State and the penalties unleashed by the NCAA today.

The two programs meet for the first time in a decade this season in the second game of the year for both schools.

Virginia, under its newest head coach Mike London, wants to notch a signature victory and maintain the momentum captured from an impressive and unexpected eight-win season in 2011.

All of those small little football nuances do not seem to matter much anymore compared to the tainted legacy and the empire falling apart before our very eyes.

Penn State is not just trying to win games but simply hoping to survive one of the biggest tragedies that can befall a university.

The Cavaliers have often tried to emulate the words of Joe Paterno, emphasizing the "student" in "student-athlete." Virginia has tried it best to maintain high academic standards as well as competing in the ever sleazier market of NCAA football.

Sure they have made mistakes, and they too have seen disappointments on a much smaller scale.

However, Virginia and all FBS schools must take heed of the lessons being taught in this tragedy.

As much as we love the thrill of a game-winning touchdown, a bowl appearance or a conference crown, it means nothing without respect, honor and integrity.

Virginia's athletic program lives by a simple phrase: "Uncompromised Excellence." It may seem trite, oversimplified or just plain humorous considering the mediocrity of the football program over the years.

Yet, that phrase must mean something, or we have all failed.

All schools should aspire towards that creed, otherwise what lesson are we teaching the next generation. That cheating only counts if you get caught?

That a diploma is only worth the money the football program brought in?

I want to believe that Virginia is above the law, but so does every college football fan across the country.

Football programs need to be ambassadors of the school, not the cash cows programs sell their souls to produce. If we, as a national fan base, cannot recognize that, then the fault is our own.

That is a fall from grace sports fan may never be able to recover from.


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