Sunday, November 23, 2014
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SIZING UP JOEPA'S INTERVIEW

Even after two lengthy interview sessions with the Washington Post, questions about Joe Paterno's role in the Jerry Sandusky scandal remain unanswered.

SIZING UP JOEPA'S INTERVIEW

Joe Paterno made his first public comments since being fired in an interview with the Washington Post. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post/AP)
Joe Paterno made his first public comments since being fired in an interview with the Washington Post. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post/AP)

A couple of lingering questions about Joe Paterno's Washington Post interview:

1. WHY WAS JOE SO EAGER TO TALK?

According to the Post's Sally Jenkins, after their lengthy session on Thursday, Joe wanted to extend the session into Friday even though he would be in the hospital that day. Clearly, the interview wouldn't have taken place if his lawyer and advisers hadn't believed that the Q and A would aid Paterno in the court of public opinion. In that case, we might have expected a smoking-gun moment, some revelation that would help lift the veil on this troubling Jerry Sandusky scandal, perhaps clear up one of its many mysteries or even exonerate Paterno.

Yet, when it came to the gravest doubts concdrning his behavior, Paterno's responses were basically a rehash. He said nothing of great import. He neither saved nor condemned himself.

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The 85-year-od coach said he wished he had done more, but he'd already said that. He indicated that he wasn't exactly clear about what Mike McQueary was describing, but we already knew that.

The ongoing debate between those who believe the coach acted responsibly and sufficiently and those who feel he should have done much more remains unresolved. So does the damage it's doing to Penn State. Neither side has any more arrows in its quiver. And that's too bad. The happiness isn't going to return to Happy Valley until this sordid mess has been cleaned up, the disturbing questions answered, the coverup -- if there was one -- brought to light,

Given his age and declining health -- both of which were in evidence during the Post interview -- who knows how much longer Paterno will be around. This Greek tragedy would grow even more dark and disturbing if he were to succumb before some future legal proceeding were to find him blameless.

We still don't know how or if Paterno tried to follow up with the athletic department officials he had notified about McQueary's story. And we still don't know precisely what he was thinking as his young, red-haired and -- in this instance certyainly, red-faced -- assistant described what he saw Sandusky doing with a young boy in the shower.

For me, Paterno's most revealing comments came when he said Sansusky quit because he'd been told he wouldn't be Penn State's next coach. And, again for me, the interview's single most interesting element not from Paterno but from his wife. After the Board of Trustees had callosuly dismissed the coach with a single sentence over the phone, Sue Paterno hit redial and told trustee John Surma that had some nerve, firing a legend in such a heartless manner. "

2. HE'D NEVER HEARD OF "RAPE AND A MAN"?

Now remember, Paterno is an 85-year-old man with lung cancer undergoing both chemotherapy and radiation as he deals with the most traumatic episode of his long and storied career. If he were forgetful or confused or imprecise in his words, it certainly would be understandable. As one reader pointed out in a email to me:

"My suggestion to you is to talk to a gerontologist to discover just what the effects of chemo can be on a person of Paterno's age, and then ask the doctor how the effect of the stress that Paterno's under would further affect him. I'm surprised JoePa remembers his own name at this point, let alone details of what was said in his meeting with McQueary"

I hope that's the case because otherwise I find the following comments hard to swallow.

“You know, he didn’t want to get specific,” Paterno said of McQueary. “And to be frank with you I don’t know that it would have done any good, because I never heard of, of, rape and a man."

Say what?

I'm sorry, but if Paterno understood the question, it's difficult to interpret his response as anything but disingenuous.

He is, after all, an Ivy League-educated man. He's read Shakespeare and the classics. And even if he weren't so well-read, he's a Catholic. That child sex-abuse scandal that has so deeply danmaged his church? What exactly did he think was happening between those priests and those boys? Horse play?

3. WHY WAS HIS DISMISSAL SO BADLY BUNGLED?

Even if the Board of Trustees knows a lot more than we think they do, and has inciminating evidence against Paterno, the way they dismissed the man who virtually transformed their university from an agricultural college into a modern, nationally recognized research institution was unconscionable.

A note delivered to his front door by a longtime friend and assistant, Fran Ganter, who could say nothing?

A slip of paper containing only a trustee's name and phone number?

A returned call and a ten-word dismissal, roughly one word for every six years of service Paterno had given to the school?

“In the best interests of the university, you are terminated.” trustee John Surma told him,

When Paterno repeated the stunning words to Sue, she took the phone and hit redial.

“After 61 years he deserved better,” she snapped. “He deserved better.”

4. HOW COULD JOE HAVE HAD NO INKLING OF SANDUSKY'S ALLEGED BEHAVIOR?

I know Joe was a workaholic. I know he was so intensely focused on football that he missed a lot of the milestones in his the lives of his children and granchildren. A technological revolution was born and bloomed without Paterno -- who once called Twitter "Tweedle-Dee" -- taking much notice,

But he wasn't blind or deaf. A man who would inquire about how his third-string tackle did on a history exam is not oblivious.

Though few had hard evidence, there were many people over the years in the coaches' room, in the locker room, in the press box, even in the grandstands who had heard the whispers about Sandusky. It's difficult to believe that Joe could have missed them all, could have worked alongside a trusted aide for decades, in a town as small and provincial as State College, and missed it all.

I know, closeness doesn't imply knowledge. But when Sandusky abruptly quit, just about the time the allegations were beginning to get some traction, how could Joe have sensed nothing in the whispers that buzzed all around him?

Frank Fitzpatrick Inquirer Sports Columnist
About this blog
Reporter Frank Fitzpatrick, a 2001 Pulitzer Prize finalist, is covering his eighth Olympic Games and has yet to win a medal in anything except caffeine consumption. He has also been the beat writer for the Phillies, Eagles and Penn State football.

Frank Fitzpatrick Inquirer Sports Columnist
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