Joe Paterno's legacy irreparably stained

7:08 AM, Jul 13, 2012   |    comments
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(USA TODAY) - An incomparable career narrative that spanned more than six decades now reads like one of the Greek tragedies the late Joe Paterno always loved: Paterno's legacy has been irreparably stained by findings that the iconic Penn State football coach concealed information for years that could have stopped a sexual predator.

The conclusions of former FBI director Louis Freeh, who drew on more than 400 interviews and 3 million documents over a nearly eight-month independent investigation of Penn State's sexual assault scandal as requested by the school, have complicated and sullied the image of major-college football's all-time winningest coach. Freeh found that Paterno was among five Penn State senior leaders who covered up information to avoid bad publicity after they became aware of sexual molestation allegations against Paterno's former longtime defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, who was convicted last month of 45 counts of sexual abuse. Freeh said Paterno could have stopped the sexual abuses "if he wished."

"The facts are the facts," Freeh said of Paterno. "He was an integral part of the act to conceal."

Within hours of Thursday morning's release of the 267-page report, Nike moved to remove Paterno's name from the child development center on Nike Campus in Beaverton, Ore. Nike's endorsement deal with Paterno had been longer than with any college coach at the time Paterno died in January at 85.

Nike chairman of the board Phil Knight, who expressed steadfast support for Paterno's response to the allegations during the coach's memorial service, issued a statement that said in part: "It appears Joe made missteps that led to heartbreaking consequences. I missed that Joe missed it, and I am extremely saddened on this day. My love for Joe and his family remains."

Several of Paterno's former players acknowledged his illustrious résumé, which includes 409 wins, two national championships and many philanthropic acts that touched the lives of countless individuals, is forever tarnished.

Former Penn State linebacker LaVar Arrington told USA TODAY Sports that the findings "do not erase everything positive on Joe Paterno's résumé," but they represent a "big mark, a bad mark on his résumé. It certainly does tarnish his reputation.

"We've all had lapses of judgment. His happens to be on a monumental level, and there happens to be children's welfare involved in this."

Chris Devlin, who played linebacker for Paterno in the early 1970s, said in a telephone interview that the report "just proves that even the best of us are not perfect. Historically, you'll see that he was a great coach but a sinner like the rest of us. The great tragedies portray both the heroic and the weaknesses in us, not that Joe Paterno is Adolf Hitler or something."

And Keith Dorney, who played left tackle at Penn State from 1975 to 1978, in a telephone interview said Paterno "is not the man we thought he was. No one is perfect, but you talk about egregious errors? My God. It's hard to conjure up something worse."

Dorney, a unanimous All-American in 1978 inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2005, added, "All of us feel duped. A little bit. Everything that was said, everything that was preached to us rings a little bit hollow."

Former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden had hoped reports implicating Paterno were not true.

"We were pretty close as coaches, and everyone has such great respect for Joe," Bowden, who has the second-most wins in major-college football, told the Tallahassee Democrat. "Still, you must look at it as a man who made a mistake - not a little-itty mistake, but a very serious mistake."

Victims' well-being ignored

Among the most jarring revelations was that Paterno had been aware of a 1998 investigation of allegations that Sandusky abused a boy in Penn State's locker room showers. Paterno followed the case closely - Sandusky was not prosecuted - but did not take action or alert the board of trustees. (The Paterno family had recently maintained that Paterno had not been aware of the 1998 investigation at the time.)

"Sandusky had been a key member of his coaching staff for almost 30 years and had an office just steps away from Mr. Paterno's," the Freeh Report stated. "At the very least, Mr. Paterno could have alerted the entire football staff, in order to prevent Sandusky from bringing another child into" the university's athletic building.

Three years later, then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary informed Paterno he had witnessed Sandusky sexually assaulting a roughly 10-year-old boy in the team shower. But the Freeh Report suggests that Paterno dissuaded school administrator Tim Curleyfrom having Penn State's administration report the allegations to authorities.

Paterno was among the five school officials, including President Graham Spanier, who did not take action to identify the victim, creating a "dangerous situation for other unknown, unsuspecting young boys who were lured to the Penn State campus and football games by Sandusky and victimized repeatedly by him," the report said.

The report concluded that the senior school officials did not demonstrate concern for the safety or well being of Sandusky's victims until after Sandusky's arrest.

In particular, Paterno was portrayed as presiding over a college football fiefdom that assumed too much power and influence and closed itself off from the rest of the university community.

"Joe has absolute power, and obviously absolute power corrupts all," Dorney said. "The power thing - anybody that has been around the program, you can't think of a more dictator-like situation. He was 'The Man.' "

When asked during a news conference about social media chatter suggesting that Freeh was picking on a dead man, Freeh said, "We have a great deal of respect for Mr. Paterno and condolences for his family on the loss. It's a person with a terrific legacy, a great legacy, who brought huge value to not just the university but the program. He, as someone once said, made perhaps the worst mistake of his life."

Pristine image crumbles

The damning indictment served as the punctuation mark on a precipitous fall from grace for Paterno, lionized throughout a 46-year head coaching career devoid of NCAA rule violations.

He was depicted as the non-texting relic who clung to ideals, nondescript uniforms and thick glasses as the college football world changed around him. When Paterno was named Sports Illustrated's 1986 Sportsman of the Year, Rick Reilly wrote, "When the going rate for a linebacker at SMU is said to be $25,000; when it takes a paralegal just to make out the sports page, we need the guy in the Photogray trifocals more than ever."

But the pristine image of Paterno and "The Grand Experiment," his belief that one can win big in a moral fashion, began its conversion last Nov. 5, when the Sandusky scandal became public and rocked the college football world.

Four days later, Penn State ended Paterno's 61-year career by phone. By January, Paterno was dead of lung cancer after his fight to preserve his name. The lasting image of the football program nestled in the pastoral hills of central Pennsylvania had been recast.

There have been considerable ramifications. NCAA and Department of Education probes continue. Penn State President Rodney Erickson said, "We are in better position now to answer the questions (NCAA President) Dr. (Mark) Emmert asked last November now that the report is out."

After Paterno was fired, his nomination for a Presidential Medal of Freedom was rescinded. His name was taken off the Big Ten championship trophy. The Joseph V. Paterno Award, a national honor presented by the Maxwell Football Club in 2010 to the coach who shows dedication to the development of student-athletes beyond the playing field, was discontinued.

The Penn State library remains named after Paterno and his wife, Sue. And outsideBeaver Stadium resides the statue of Paterno, the coach in stride, right index finger raised high, watched over Thursday by a security guard.

Arrington has not ruled out wanting the statue removed but is taking a wait-and-see approach in case more information emerges on a coaching legend he ultimately didn't really know.

"What do I really know?" Arrington said. "I know that Joe Paterno coached us. I know that Jerry Sandusky coached us. What else do I know? I know that Graham Spanier was the president.

"What do we truly know? You don't know." 

Contributing: Jeffrey Martin, Jack Carey

Related Penn State stories:

Freeh findings point finger at Paterno and others

Penn State report condemns university leaders

Paterno: Abuse case 'not a football scandal'

Paterno family: late coach didn't cover up at PSU

Paterno family: Release all e-mails and records

Report: Sandusky wants out of isolation cell

Lawyer: Jerry Sandusky still says he's not guilty

After Sandusky verdict, focus shifts to Penn State

Jerry Sandusky trial: Defense rests without Sandusky testifying

Child rape case against Jerry Sandusky goes to jury

Sandusky's wife defends his contact with young boys

Sandusky's wife takes witness stand at trial

Sandusky witness: I should have spoken out sooner

Eric Prisbell, USA TODAY

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