Sunday 23 July 2017

Paterno pays price for putting his team above everything

America's most revered college football coach has just seen his proud legacy destroyed by a tragic flaw, writes Eamonn Sweeney

a few weeks ago Joe Paterno was one of the most respected men in American sport. In a country where the college football coach fills an almost sacramental role, Paterno was the greatest of them all. He'd won more games than any other coach, 409, and had led Penn State to national titles in 1982 and 1986. At the age of 82, he'd been head coach at the university for an astounding 46 years.

If there was ever a man whose legacy seemed to be secure, it was Joe Paterno. The closest equivalent to him in this part of the world would probably be Mick O'Dwyer.

Then the news broke that one of Paterno's former defensive co-ordinators, Jerry Sandusky, was being charged with multiple counts of sexual assault against eight boys between 1994 and 2009.

Paterno, it emerged, had been informed about the allegations in 2002 and had passed on the news to his superior, Penn State athletic director Tim Curley. Curley had taken no action and neither had Paterno. Two weeks ago, the veteran coach was sacked, something which prompted a mini riot by student fans of the team in the town of State College, Pennsylvania.

Today Joe Paterno's legacy is in ruins.

The emblematic figure of classical tragedy is the basically good man destroyed by a fatal flaw. And it seems to me that there is something genuinely tragic about the fate of Joe Paterno. Here you had a man who had worked hard all his life in the pursuit of sporting excellence, who inspired huge loyalty among his players, ensured they got a better education than most college footballers and donated millions of dollars to charitable causes.

Yet it may have been that very monomaniacal dedication to Penn State football which caused him to think he could gloss over the Sandusky scandal.

Strictly by the letter of the law, he acted correctly in passing the allegation up the chain of command. But very few people think his responsibility stopped there. This urge to look away in order to protect the institution is something we're sadly very familiar with it in this country. Buzz Bissinger, author of the great Friday Night Lights, has described Paterno's attitude as indicative of an 'evil' Mafia-style mentality and has even suggested the scandal should lead to the scrapping of big-time college sports programmes.

Paterno asked the college authorities to let him retire at the end of the season but was instead sacked immediately. I suppose I'd concur with the American fan of college sports I met last week who said the Paterno affair was "unforgivable but sad too".

And you'd need a heart of stone not to have been moved by the interview his son, the team's quarterback coach, Jay gave after the game against Nebraska which was Penn State's first game without their old manager.

Paterno Junior obviously set out to try and keep a stiff upper lip and succeeded until right at the end he was blindsided by a question regarding his father. I

don't think I've seen many grown men as upset as Jay Paterno was when he stumbled through the words, "Dad, I wish you were here, we love you." In that moment the younger Paterno seemed like just another hurt kid. That his father had been diagnosed with lung cancer that very week must have been weighing heavily on him.

It was genuinely sad even if the real victims in this are the children allegedly assaulted by Sandusky.

Perhaps the only person who knows exactly why Joe Paterno acted as he did is the man himself.

In the end, he may have paid the price for thinking that the reputation of his football programme was the most important consideration. It wasn't and it could never have been.

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