As the media turn their attention to Happy Valley, Joe Paterno in particular, the long-time coach finds himself in the same uncomfortable position as Jim Tressel did at Ohio State over the summer: an iconic coach whose above-reproach reputation is being undone by an unexplainable lack of wisdom.
For Tressel, his actions after learning that his players had, in fact, broken NCAA rules showed a foolishness tainted with a touch of moral pride.
Paterno’s actions, on the surface, seem more complex. His situation involved a long-time assistant, and the allegations require slow judgment, not the lightning verdict of a witch hunt.
Still, both Tressel and Paterno had important information. Tressel’s actions were more of a cover-up. Having been tipped off that his players had broken NCAA rules, he kept the information to himself. After it was revealed that he had exchanged e-mails with an attorney (a former Buckeye player) about the situation months before it came to light, he was forced to resign.
At least Paterno told someone about the allegations he had learned about. He dutifully reported his situation to his superiors — an athletic director who now, sadly, faces perjury charges for lying about his knowledge of the accusations being made against long-time Paterno aide Jerry Sandusky.
Paterno was told of the incident by a graduate assistant in 2002. For many, the question is, why did Paterno not follow up on this? That is the question that Paterno must face, and will face, as this scandal unfolds under examination by the media.
In fact, both Tressel and Paterno misjudged the effect of media coverage. If they had considered how their actions would play under the glare of the media, they might have acted differently, and accepted short-term embarrassment over the long-term effects this will have on their legacy.
That is the “what were they thinking?” moment here. In fact, it goes beyond considering the possibility of media coverage. It would also involve Tressel and Paterno looking at their actions objectively.
In Tressel’s case, that might not have been enough. He seems to operate with an air of moral superiority that covers all of his actions. He might have thought that the Ohio State faithful would say, if that’s how Tressel handled it, that’s the right way to handle it. Either way, he thought wrong.
Paterno, who could teach Tressel a little about humility, is coming off as more of a hapless bystander. Sadly, his mishandling will reflect on his effectiveness as a coach. Fans have wondered whether Paterno has stuck around too long to be a good football coach. Media will also ask the age question, right or wrong, about this. Keep in mind that Paterno was 76 years old when he heard about these allegations in 2002.
I will be shocked if Paterno does not step down at the end of this season, directly or indirectly because of this scandal. And it will be sad that this scandal will be the last thing people know about his distinguished coaching career. But it could have been avoided, if he had asked himself the tough questions nine years ago.
Most coaches hate it when the media ask the tough questions. But if the media don’t ask them, and the coaches don’t ask them of themselves, where does that leave situations like this scandal?