Submitted By Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger
That ultimate question uttered by Senator Howard Baker encapsulated the Watergate Era as Congress grappled with assessing culpability of President Richard Nixon, who was then at the zenith of his presidency. Now almost forty years later, the nation is again captured by a fall from grace as steep and as fast as Nixon’s. And again that question has to be asked of “America’s Football Coach.”
While I’m certainly no Woodward or Bernstein, it seems my blog post about the expanding scandal has reached some folks in Pennsylvania with knowledge about the inner workings of the institution of Penn State Football and about the characters involved. One reached out to me with disturbing questions and a “theory” that has the distinct ring of truth. Here’s the version:
It’s 1999, and you’ve just been handed the American Football Coaches Association’s Assistant Football Coach of the Year award. The son of hard-working second generation Polish immigrants from Western Pennsylvania’s coal region, you graduated first in your class at Penn State after starting on the football team for three years. You’re coaching at your alma mater in a profession known as much for long hours, low pay, and eating its young as for being carried off the field in victory. Oh, you’ve had your share of shoulder pad rides, too. First, when you held everybody’s All-American (and arguably the finest player to ever play college football), Georgia’s Hershel Walker to 3.2 yeards per carry in the 1982 national title game. Then again in 1987 when your protegés intercepted Heisman Trophy winner, Vinny Testaverde, five times, in one of the sports most improbable victories over the heavily favored bad boy of American athletics, the infamous fatigue-wearing Miami Hurricanes, and in so doing vindicated the Nittany Lions’ hoary motto of “Victory with Honor.”
It’s your dream job and you’re coaching with one of the true legends of the profession. Your mentor is in his mid-70’s and you’ve been proclaimed his heir apparent by everyone who would listen. You’ve been approached by several schools to coach their floundering teams, including the University of Maryland, and even made the perfunctory rounds of interviews at places like the University of Virginia. You’ve produced 10 consensus All-Americans including NFL Hall of Famer, Jack Ham. You’ve been at your job for 20 years, and you’ve gained the respect of colleagues, peers, and the public alike for your charitable work and well-publicized interest in helping disadvantaged kids through a charity you founded. At age 55, you’re making good money — for an assistant coach — but a head coaching job would earn you ten times as much and give your family of six adopted kids and a devoted wife financial security. You’ve even written the definitive book on your area of expertise which you generously entitle, “Developing Linebackers the Penn State Way.” In short, you’re hot in your profession and uniquely poised to either succeed the legend or take one of the plum coaching jobs in America’s football pantheon. You know, the Notre Dames, Michigans, or Southern Cal’s of the world.
With all this professional and financial potential, what do you do? Well you retire, of course. You set yourself on a path of summer football camps, and chicken-dinner speeches with appearance fees earning roughly two-thirds of what you’ve made and orders of magnitude less that what you could make. You throw yourself into charity work from whence you derive some income and you rely on the largesse of a town where you preside as a demigod. But there are rumors.
In 1998, you’ve been investigated for “inappropriate” conduct with a minor. The mother of the child sets you up in sting operation where a detective hiding in a closet overhears you say, ” “I understand. I was wrong. I wish I could get forgiveness. I know I won’t get it from you. I wish I were dead.” Luckily, the DA in charge of the case rules the matter “unfounded,” declines to prosecute, and thankfully later winds up missing after a 60 mile pleasure ride. You’ve dodged a bullet. Yet, you resign just under a year later.
Joe Paterno has claimed ignorance of the 1998 episode, but according to a person who contacted me, that’s highly questionable. State College, Pa is a 40,000 person enclave devoted to Joe Paterno and Penn State — in that order. Hell, there’s a bronze statue of the man in the middle of campus replete with those thick, black glasses; William Penn just gets some pages on the Paterno Library book shelves. Located in the largely unpopulated heart of Pennsylvania, the town was little more than an encampment when Joe Paterno arrived in 1950 with another icon of Pennsylvania’s venerable football coaching priesthood, Rip Engle. Engle, who was paranoid of losing even against vastly inferior teams, inculcated his charge with the notion that a coach must exercise iron-fisted rule over his program, and to borrow a modern bromide, “what happens inside the program, stays inside the program.” Brown University graduate, Joe Paterno was a good student to his football teacher, and when he took over for Engle in 1966 he inherited a strong football program and a town enamored of it.
Football coaches call their profession a “brotherhood.” Almost exclusively male and established as a true hierarchy, the work is exhausting as every aspect of the opponent must be broken down, scrutinized, and prepared for as if for a sea-borne military invasion. It’s overkill sure, but the adherents love the challenge and, most of all, the camaraderie in pursuit of the challenge. It harkens back to a time of face-painted men pledging their lives around a camp fire to the hunt of some sabre-tooth tiger for the glory of the tribe. It’s machismo pure and simple and most coaches will tell you it’s their life. Oh, they pay dutiful homage to “family and faith” of course, but it’s football that keeps the brotherhood together in almost an exercise of devotion. As I mentioned in the earlier post, it’s a religion in most every sense — ritual, zealotry, ornamental dress, and rigid tenets. Probably the most important tenet is that coaches live out every win and loss together. Like most closed circles of the faithful, they talk, they argue, and they critique their fellows — all the time.
With that background is it really plausible, that in a town as ga-ga over football as State College is, Paterno really didn’t know about Sandusky’s run-in with law enforcement? Is State College immune from the marriage that all authority figures have for one another in most every other small town. You know like when the police chief and the high school football coach meet over coffee to discuss who’s handling security for Friday’s game and whether that trouble-making Jones kid will be there. Or when the mayor runs into the school superintendent and they talk about the kid who bullied the mayor’s little precious. These conversations go on every day in every small town in America — and most big ones, too.
Put those little facts together with the fact that Paterno did not attend Sandusky’s retirement party, and was rarely seen outside of the football facility with Sandusky, and you might wonder what happened to the relationship after 1998. You might wonder why Sandusky quit applying for head coaching jobs. You might even conclude that Coach Paterno nudged his former right-hand man out of his position at age 55, and refused to recommend him for any job at the head of another football program. No, not even at Virginia or Maryland who were desperate for a big name, sure winner and who rarely ever played Penn State. Nobody ever explained why Sandusky didn’t get those jobs despite their stated interest and his brightly burning star. Just the usual, “we have a number of good candidates … blah, blah, blah.” You might conclude that Penn State knew about the transgression with the child and, in exchange for his leaving the Program, cut a deal to grant him and his charity unfettered access to the program and satellite campuses, but no direct role in its operation with young men. That way, you see, there’s no taint. No questions on the propriety of a program that made $51 million for the school last year and funded 26 academic departments — all on the efforts of 18-22 year old-young men. Nope, no questions indeed, except the big one whose answer may be locked away in some ancient personnel files that seem to have the nasty habit of getting lost amid all that moving that goes on within campus departments.
What does a person do who’s banished from the priesthood? How do you react, after a life of high achievement in every sphere, and then are abruptly denied your goal when it is within your grasp? What do you feel, and how do you act on those feelings? Those are the questions that can only be answered by answering the first one I asked.
~Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger