Joe Paterno is really not a saint. Penn State is not Harvard. Happy Valley is no Eden.
Those were myths. Paterno and the university, aided by an adoringly complicit media, created them, disseminated them, and benefitted from them for decades.
Most believed them. But some, particularly the coaches and schools whose troubles provided a convenient contrast to that pristine Penn State image, bristled at what they perceived as unwarranted, unchallenged arrogance.
Squeaky-clean became Penn State’s brand. And until last week it endured, no matter the evidence to the contrary -- arrests, fights, DUIs.
The now-deposed football coach climbed on his soapbox so often to laud Penn State’s virtues or lament college athletics’ sins that the university’s Creamery could have renamed its most famous ice-cream flavor Preachy Paterno.
“Penn State,” ESPN analyst Beano Cook said several years ago, “gives the impression that its kids walk out of chemistry class and say, `We only have 16 credits this fall, let’s play football.’ My only resentment is those holier-than-thou, those self-serving statements. I don’t get mad at Miami because they don’t try to represent themselves like Penn State does. Penn State is no different that Miami, Michigan, Texas.”
Now, in the wake of the child sex-abuse scandal that has brought down Paterno and several university administrators, many seem to be gloating at Penn State’s predicament.
Ex-Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, who long battled Paterno for the all-time lead in Division I victories, said the fired Nittany Lions coach was “negligent” in not reporting abuse allegations by ex-assistant Jerry Sandusky to police.
Former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer, himself the target of a famous Paterno sermon, suggested Paterno and his entire staff had to have known about Sandusky’s alleged predatory behavior.
Radio sports-talk shows, internet blogs and chat rooms have been buzzing – a reaction that seems to be comprised of equal parts glee and revenge -- at the exposure of what so many perceived as Penn State’s hypocrisy.
“I've always hated Joe Paterno and Penn State's holier than thou sham,” Steve Hsu, a physics professor at the University of Oregon, wrote on his blog.
On a Cleveland sports website, a fan of Ohio State – Penn State’s opponent Saturday – a Buckeyes’ fan wrote: “I have always looked at the Penn State program as Holier Than Thou for no good reason, particularly considering their student-athlete arrest record for the football program between 2002 and 2008.”
Perhaps the venting has been loudest in Florida, where Miami, Florida and Florida State often served as villainous counterpoints to Penn State’s white-hatters.
“My brother lives down there and he said the people calling in to radio talk shows are having a field day with this Penn State thing,” said Allen Cook, a barber in West Chester.
Down there, columnists and the hosts and callers of sports-radio have been quick to note the hypocrisy.
“Now Paterno is worse than [Jackie] Sherrill. He is presiding over the most heinous, disgusting, despicable scandal in the history of college athletics,” wrote Mike Bianchi, a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.
Sherrill’s name has come up often since news of the scandal broke more than a week ago. It’s a reference to a comment Paterno made in an off-the-record session with reporters in 1979.
Asked at the time if he had any plans to enter politics, Paterno said:
“I’m not going to give up college football to the Jackie Sherrills and Barry Switzers of the world,” he said, referring to the coaches at then trouble-plagued Pitt and Oklahoma, respectively.
The remark made its way into print and Paterno publicly apologized to Switzer though, as far as anyone knows, not Sherrill.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s once observed: “Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy”. Now Paterno has been dismissed while enmeshed in a scandal, just as Sherrill and Switzer were.
It was a cruel irony that the media didn’t miss. In a story bitingly headlined “Penn State Coach Joins Bobby Bowden, Barry Switzer, Other Coaches Who Have Fallen From Grace, writer Dan Treadway made the connewction to Sherrill and Switzer.
“Sure enough, Joe Paterno coached after both were gone from the college game,” Dan Treadway wrote last week in the Huffington Post. “Preaching the `Penn State Way,’ Paterno outlasted Sherrill by eight years and Switzer by more than two decades. But, unexpectedly, Paterno now finds himself experiencing the unceremonious dismissal generally reserved for the sorts of renegade coaches that he had long tried to distinguish himself from.”
Paterno, himself, understood that he might have mounted his high horse too readily, but he could never help himself. He did so, he said, only because he felt an obligation to make his players, his team and his game better.
“I don’t like to put myself up as a do-gooder,” he said in 1981, “but I am.”
Still, many critics, including his late brother, George, cringed whenever Paterno morphed into Pope Pious (cq).
“If you don’t wear a backward collar,” George Paterno said, “it’s hard to get away with piety.”