It's no secret -- at least among people close to the Penn State football program -- that coach Joe Paterno and university president Graham Spanier have not had the greatest relationship over the last several years or so. Neither has publicly stated his displeasure for the other, but there is tension there, nevertheless. How could there not be? Spanier is the de facto leader of a large university that has an 81-year-old man as its head football coach, a football team that has had numerous run-ins with the law over the last decade or so and a program that has had its ups and downs on the field during that span.
And let us not forget that Paterno is in the last year of contract, with no assurances from Spanier that he will be asked back for next season. So it was with great interest that I e-mailed Spanier on Saturday to get his take on the way Paterno handled the latest off-the-field incident. Spanier's response, already posted here and in Sunday's paper, was:
"I support Coach Paterno's disciplinary actions with the members of the football team who not only broke team rules but also violated the expectations that Penn State has for its student athlete. Character and social responsibility are important values at Penn State that we will continue to emphasize. We continue to emphasize to our student athletes the importance of their citizenship and I regret very much behaviors that could cast our program in a negative light."
OK. Fine. So I asked Paterno after Saturday's game if he had seen Spanier's vote of confidence and if he had spoken to the president since the incident occurred. Here is his edgy response:
"I'm pleased, but I haven't seen that. Dr. Spanier has been very supportive of me all the time. There's been some stuff going around -- this and that and all the other stuff -- which is really unfair to him, unfair to me and unfair to the program. Honest to God, I have not been in to see him. I haven't heard about it. I haven't read about it. I'm sure if he didn't approve, he'd call me in. But I'm glad he thinks I did the right thing."
OK. Fine. But when Paterno was asked during his Big Ten conference call on Tuesday if he had spoken to Spanier, he admitted that he had. "We have a Quarterback Club luncheon every Wednesday," Paterno said. "And last Wednesday, Dr. Spanier came to it and as we were walking out with other people, he said, 'Are you OK with everything?' and I said, 'Yeah.' "He said, 'That's a shame [the incident].' I said, 'Oh, I think we'll be OK.' "That was it. I mean, that's what I recollect." You can listen to it here.
When I asked Penn State Football Branding Director Guido D'Elia if Paterno had flat-out lied to me, D'Elia said Paterno must have thought I was asking if he had seen Spanier since his public statement. Which is a fair enough response. Paterno has been known to give two completely different answers to the same question before. But the discrepancy and the three days to recollect gave me pause. Obviously, Paterno must tread on water in regards to the current situation. He's in a no-win bind. If he goes easy on the suspended players it looks like he's just trying to save what looks to be a promising season. If he comes down hard he risks the type of season that could make Spanier's decision to extend almost moot. The season is only two games old and there's already been an incident. How long before there's another? How long before Spanier says, 'Enough?' Whichever way you dice, it should make for one compelling season.