Former Penn State coach Joe Paterno speaks about role in Sandusky scandal for first time

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A few days ago, Joe Paterno made his first public comments since being fired. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post/AP)

When a nervous and uncomfortable Mike McQueary sat at Joe Paterno's kitchen table and tried to explain what he'd witnessed Jerry Sandusky doing with a boy in a locker-room shower, Paterno said he struggled to comprehend.

"He didn't want to get specific," said Paterno, the former Penn State football coach, in an interview last week with the Washington Post - his first since a child sexual-abuse scandal involving Sandusky, his longtime aide, hit State College like an earthquake on Nov. 5 of last year.

"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. So I just did what I thought was best. I talked to people that I thought would be, if there was a problem, that would be following up on it."

That October 2002 conversation with an assistant nearly a half-century younger and the then 75-year-old coach's response to it rest at the heart of the scandal that has triggered five investigations, a firestorm of national criticism about Penn State's handling of the matter, and the dismissals of Paterno and university president Graham B. Spanier.

In the overheated days after Sandusky's Nov. 5 arrest, questions were raised about Paterno and what McQueary told him about the shower incident, something the younger man has characterized to authorities as sodomy. Sandusky has been charged with 50 counts of child molestation involving 10 boys.

What did Paterno know about Sandusky's behavior? And when did he know it? Had he covered up his ex-defensive coordinator's alleged behavior for the sake of the program he had built and led to national prominence? Or, unable to grasp McQueary's story, had he properly followed university guidelines and turned the matter over to athletic director Tim Curley?

 

The McQueary meeting

In any case, four days after Sandusky's arrest, in a brief telephone conversation with board of trustees vice chairman John Surma, Paterno's 61-year career at the university came to an end. He cleaned out his office, he said, in a single day.

That meeting with McQueary is the dramatic nub of the Post story based on the interview Sally Jenkins conducted with Paterno in his home on Thursday and Friday, before Paterno was admitted to a State College hospital where he has been receiving treatment for lung cancer.

Jenkins portrayed an 85-year-old man wracked by disease and scandal, both of which hit him almost simultaneously; occasionally addled by the treatments for his illness; concerned about the alleged victims; eager to repair his damaged reputation; unwilling to condemn Sandusky until a court finds him guilty; and, perhaps most interesting, surprisingly naive about the wincing details of child sexual abuse.

Paterno's attorney, Wick Sollers of the Washington law firm King & Spaulding, and a communications adviser, Dan McGinn of TMG Strategies, monitored the interviews, which took place on Thursday and Friday. They did so, the Post noted, to ensure Paterno was lucid. The cancer treatments apparently caused occasional memory lapses.

His family, wife Sue and five children, were there for at least part of the discussion.

The coach's version of the McQueary conversation is substantially the same one he told the Harrisburg grand jury that indicted Sandusky and, for their roles in what it describes as a cover-up, athletic director Tim Curley and administrator Gary Schultz.

"He [McQueary] was very upset, and I said, 'Why?' and he was very reluctant to get into it," Paterno said. "He told me what he saw, and I said, 'What?' He said it, well, looked like inappropriate, or fondling, I'm not quite sure exactly how he put it. I said, 'You did what you had to do. It's my job now to figure out what we want to do.'

"So I sat around. It was a Saturday. Waited till Sunday because I wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing. And then I called my superiors and I said, 'Hey, we got a problem, I think. Would you guys look into it?' 'Cause I didn't know, you know. We never had, until that point, 58 years I think, I had never had to deal with something like that. And I didn't feel adequate."

Jeff Anderson, a defense attorney who is representing an alleged 29-year-old victim of Sandusky, and who has also represented many victims in the Catholic Church sex scandals, said Paterno and the three senior officials "put their own stature and the stature of Penn State above the health and safety and well-being of children."

"[Paterno] enjoyed such stature for so long that he seems to have rendered himself incapable of self-awareness - for his individual responsibility and for the institutional responsibility," Anderson said in an e-mail response to the Post story. "He says, 'I wish I knew.' It's selective hindsight, born of arrogance."

Joseph Amendola, Sandusky's attorney, defended the actions of Paterno and the two senior Penn State officials.

"We believe Coach Paterno, President Spanier, AD Tim Curley, and Gary Schultz did nothing inappropriate in response to the information provided to them by Mike McQueary and took appropriate action in response to that in formation," Amendola said Saturday in an e-mail.

 

Fired over the phone

Paterno - weakened by chemotherapy and radiation, wearing a wig, and appearing understandably frail - and his wife, Sue, also described for Jenkins the night of his stunning dismissal, a hasty decision that has infuriated many Penn State alums and led many to call for the 32-member board of trustees to resign en masse.

According to the Post story, an assistant athletic director knocked on the door of the Paternos' McKee Street home at about 10 p.m. on Nov. 9 and, without saying a word, handed Sue a piece of paper. Written on it was Surma's name and a phone number.

When Paterno reached the trustee, Surma was blunt. "In the best interest of the university, you are terminated," he said.

The old coach hung up and repeated the words to his wife, who reacted angrily.

She hit redial and, when Surma answered, told the board vice chairman: "After 61 years he deserved better. He deserved better."

Anthony Lubrano, a Penn State graduate and longtime donor to the university who organized the Real Talk town hall earlier this week in Philadelphia, said the interview showed that Paterno's firing was inappropriate.

"As he said in the interview, he had no knowledge of any other event [1998], and Mike McQueary never described to him graphically the details of the alleged 2002 incident," Lubrano said in an e-mail. "Consequently, to conclude that Coach Paterno was somehow involved in a cover-up, as has been claimed by many in the media, is preposterous."

 

Paterno and Sandusky

As for Sandusky, Paterno told the Post he was not that close socially to his longtime assistant and that the reason for his 1999 retirement had nothing to do with any whispers about his alleged sexual predilection for boys.

Paterno said he understood that Sandusky retired early because he'd told his longtime heir apparent that he would not be the next Penn State coach and because the state had recently sweetened its retirement packages for 30-plus-year employees.

Apparently, Paterno also was upset that Sandusky was devoting too much time to the Second Mile, the youth foundation the assistant had founded and which authorities claim he used to meet his alleged victims.

"He came to see me, and we talked a little about his career," Paterno recalled. "I said, 'You know, Jerry, [if] you want to be head coach, you can't do as much as you're doing with the other operation.' I said, 'This job takes so much detail, and for you to think you can go off and get involved in fund-raising and a lot of things like that . . . you can't do both.' "

Paterno also expressed sensitivity about the widely held perception that nothing happened in the Penn State football program, which had been his home since 1950, that he wasn't aware of. That belief is at the core of why so many people expressed disappointment in how Paterno reacted to the unfolding scandal.

"Whether it's fair, I don't know," he said, "but they do it. You would think I ran the show here."

Even though the scandal cost him his job and weakened the program that had been his life, Paterno refused to condemn Sandusky, or Curley and Schultz.

"I think we've got to wait and see what happens," he said. "The courts are taking care of it. The legal system is taking care of it."

Still, he said he had no idea how Sandusky managed to avoid detection for so long and how he failed to pick up what in retrospect must have been obvious signals.

"I wish I knew," Paterno said. "I don't know the answer to that. It's hard."

 

No follow-up

As the Post story pointed out, a question that's "almost as difficult for Paterno to answer is the question of why, after receiving a report in 2002 that Sandusky had abused a boy in the shower of Penn State's Lasch football building, and forwarding it to his superiors, he didn't follow up more aggressively."

"I didn't know exactly how to handle it," he said, "and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was. So I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did. It didn't work out that way."

Sollers told the Post that Paterno, who has been charged with no crime, "has no legal exposure in the Sandusky case" and had cooperated with investigators.

"In my judgment Coach Paterno . . . acted completely appropriately in reporting the only allegation he received to his superiors and had every expectation that the allegation would be investigated thoroughly," the attorney said.

The possibility that his perceived inaction could result in lawsuits against the university has led to his becoming a virtual pariah among Penn State administrators. He has had almost no contact with any of them since his dismissal.

In addition to the physical and professional toll the scandal has taken on him, Paterno's hard-earned reputation as the ethical conscience of college sports has been damaged.

Philadelphia's Maxwell Club removed his name from its Joseph V. Paterno Award, which was to be given to coaches who made a positive impact. A nomination for the Presidential Medal of Freedom was withdrawn.

"You know, I'm not as concerned about me," he told Jenkins. "What's happened to me has been great. I got five great kids. Seventeen great grandchildren. I've had a wonderful experience here at Penn State. I don't want to walk away from this thing bitter. I want to be helpful."

Paterno said he thinks often of the alleged victims in the case.

"I got three boys and two girls," Paterno said. "It's sickening. . . . Violence is not the way to handle it, but for me, I'd get a bunch of guys and say, 'Let's go punch somebody in the nose.' "

Sue Paterno's response on the subject was even harsher.

"If someone touched my child, there wouldn't be a trial; I would have killed them," she said. "That would be my attitude, because you have destroyed someone for life."

*Inquirer staff writers Mike Newall and Jeremy Roebuck contributed to this story.


More on Paterno

Karen Heller: A new scandal in the making. A2.

Frank Fitzpatrick: Alumni anger won't go away. E1.

Mike Jensen: Interview won't change any minds. E1.


Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068, ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com, or @philafitz on Twitter. Read his blog, "Giving 'Em Fitz," at www.philly.com/fitz