Sunday, April 26, 2015

Joe Paterno's biggest accomplishment at Penn State

It isn't something Paterno did on the field - though it certainly has had an effect on the Nittany Lions' football team.

Joe Paterno's biggest accomplishment at Penn State

Joe Paterno has kept Penn State successful on the field and off it. (Dave Martin/AP file photo)
Joe Paterno has kept Penn State successful on the field and off it. (Dave Martin/AP file photo)

I realize it's been a while since I last posted on here. I haven't had much to say about this year's college football season, mainly because I've been so busy with soccer that I don't know how many games I'll get to this fall.

I'm already certain that I won't be at any of the local college football coaches' luncheons, which have formed the basis of my football coverage on here for the last few years.

But I wanted to stop by today because of a game coming up tomorrow that is going to have my attention: the much-hyped meeting in Happy Valley of Penn State and Alabama.

I know I don't cover Penn State football much on here. I don't really have any connections to the program and I tend to focus my football attention on schools closer to Philadelphia.

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I've never met Joe Paterno. I've never been to State College, or even been on one of Paterno's weekly conference calls. The closest I've ever come was the last time the Nittany Lions played Temple at Lincoln Financial Field, but I was focusing mainly on the Temple side of things that day.

Still, I can't help being in awe of what Paterno has achieved in his long career in State College. Not just on the field, but off it.

As I know all of you Penn State faithful would tell me chapter and verse, Paterno has been in charge of the Nittany Lions since 1966. There have been two national championships and a total of 24 bowl games won in 35 postseason appearances. There have also been more players of distinction sent to the NFL than I could possibly think of.

There is also one more line on Paterno's résumé that stands out to me. At first glance, it has nothing to do with wins and losses, but in reality, it has everything to do with them.

Back in June, the Wall Street Journal reported on a statistic that one of its sportswriters found notable.

Since the NCAA began tracking rule violations in 1953, a total of 17 out of the 120 schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision "have never been found guilty of any major violation in any sport."

Of those 17 schools, four are in BCS conferences.

Of those four schools, one is a public institution.

That one is Penn State.

It is enough of an honor to be in that group of four schools, along with Boston College, Northwestern and Stanford. They are all fine academic institutions, to the point where sometimes they care more about how U.S. News and World Report ranks them than how the Associated Press ranks them.

(That is a polite way of referring to Northwestern and Stanford without disparaging Penn State. I know a lot of really smart people who went there, and I'm fortunate to work with quite a few at Philly.com. But I think you get my point.)

It is worth noting, as the Journal did, that Boston College, Northwestern and Stanford are private institutions. As such, they are not subject to the same Freedom of Information Act rules that have produced a lot of the reporting on violations at public universities.

It is also worth nothing that all four schools have diverse athletic programs that have found success in a range of pursuits: B.C. in hockey, Northwestern in lacrosse, Penn State in volleyball and wrestling and Stanford in many Olympic sports.

But we all know too well that the true barometer by which almost every high-profile college athletic program in the nation is judged is football. A successful football team brings glamor, national television exposure, and piles of cash to an athletic department's bank account.

At what cost, though? Not just in terms of the race to renovate stadiums and build sparkling practice facilities across the nation. I mean the cost of free tattoos and cars, of access to strip clubs and prostitutes, and of thousands of dollars in payments to recruiting agents who sell the same information to multiple schools at the same time.

(The latter being especially notable when the two schools play each other in a game broadcast nationally on network television in the opening week of the season.)

Is there not some quantity of shame in the act of literally selling your son to the highest bidder, seeking hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash on top of a full-ride scholarship in order to secure the services of an 18-year-old?

And that is all before wondering aloud what kinds of academic assistance college athletes receive in order to keep their grades just high enough to maintain NCAA eligibility; and whether non-athlete students receive similar assistance.

We all know the answer: Of course there is no shame. At Ohio State, Miami, Oregon, LSU, Auburn, USC and many other schools, winning matters most. For years, the desire to land that elite player who can deliver a program a championship (and a fat check) has driven athletic departments to pursue illegal courses of action time and again.

Yes, some programs have been punished for their transgressions by the NCAA. But we all know how often the punishment has not fit the crime - and we all know how often this been the case in recent years.

So the cycle continues. Raise money, spend it, recruit players, break rules, win games, make lots more money, vacate the wins, suffer the punishment, fire the coach, keep the memories of the good times, and start over again.

That doesn't sound like such a bad life, does it?

If I were a Penn State alumnus, I would hope that I would be as proud of the school's decades without a major NCAA violation as I would be of the football team's decades of success under Joe Paterno.

I would hope, too, that I would look at the sordid scandals that have engulfed college football in recent months, and be able to hold my head high and be satisfied that my alma mater was doing things the right way.

But I can't help thinking that every now and again, I would connect that lack of rules violations with Penn State's lack of a national championship since 1986.

I would imagine what life would be like if the reins were looser. Would it mean that Penn State would finally lift that crystal football instead of Ohio State or Auburn?

If that did happen, would I care how the glory was acquired? Would it matter whether there were illegal payments from boosters or tattoo parlors or car dealerships?

I hope not, but I'll never know for certain. I am pretty sure of this, though: there seem to be a lot of people across the country who do not care one bit about how their team achieves success.

When rules are broken, the NCAA can issue all kinds of punishments. It can vacate wins, issue fines, take away scholarships, and sometimes do even more if they want to.

But any such actions can't vacate the memories of the fans of those teams that have raised big trophies in January. Nor can those actions vacate the BCS bowls' bank accounts, with their billions of dollars in television rights fees and sponsors' checks.

(Actually, the NCAA could do that. But who would ever want to see the national champion determined by a playoff?)

Tomorrow, one of the best fan bases in the country will pack Beaver Stadium to the heavens, and cheer on Penn State to what they hope will be an upset of Alabama. A national television audience will get to see one of the great spectacles in college football, and I hope the game lives up to the hype.

What I really hope for, though, is something bigger. Not that anyone connected to Penn State has to listen to me, but here goes anyway:

I hope that I'm not the only person who thinks it's important that Penn State is the only public institution in a BCS conference that has never committed a major NCAA infraction in the 58 years that records have been kept.

I know that a lot of people out there have been screaming for years that Paterno should retire. I know some of the stories of how people have tried to push him out, and I'm sure there are even more that I haven't heard.

But I think Penn State's lack of NCAA infractions in Paterno's tenure is just as impressive an accomplishment as any big win on the field. I think that ought to be accounted for when fans cast judgement on the only Nittany Lions football coach that many of them have ever known.

Do you agree?

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Soft Pretzel Logic is Philly.com's college sports blog, with a primary focus on the University of Pennsylvania. You'll also see coverage of the Big 5, other major college sports events in the region, and the annual Penn Relays track and field meet.

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