The End Zone Seat: Shocking Fall from Grace
While watching and reading about the sickening implosion of Penn State’s reputation last week, the only word that came to my mind was hubris.
Hubris is defined as an exaggerated pride or self-confidence.
That certainly applied to the many Penn State alumni and fans who perceived the school and its football team as a shining example of the way that college sports programs should be conducted.
Forty-six years ago, Joe Paterno took the reins from his mentor Rip Engle to coach the Nittany Lions.
At that time, he proclaimed a “Grand Experiment” in which student-athletes would be more student than athlete and in which the school would do things the right way in recruiting and developing the young men in the program.
In those first heady years when Paterno’s undefeated and nationally-ranked teams made what was once was a sleepy cow college in Centre County one of the centers of college football, the “Grand Experiment” was viewed a success.
The fans were justified to be proud of the program that did things the right way.
But over time, the program changed and the fans’ perception of it did also.
Growing up, Penn State was my favorite college football team.
But the more I encountered diehard fans and PSU alumni, I noticed that what once was pride had almost grown to arrogance.
It was one thing to look down on the programs that were perennially in trouble with the NCAA investigators, but when schools that also tried to do things the right way like Notre Dame, which by the way has higher academic requirements for admission than PSU, were regarded as not fit opponents for Penn State, it puzzled me.
As the years grew into decades, Paterno, who had first come across as the scholarly, if somewhat cranky, uncle, changed.
A cult of personality began to build around him.
Suddenly, he wasn’t Penn State’s football coach. He was Penn State.
You got the feeling that when the fans at Beaver Stadium began chanting, “We are Penn State!” they really meant, “We are Joe Pa!”
The Penn State cheerleaders even had one that went “I say ‘Joe Pa,’ you say ‘terno.’”
A wise man said, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Paterno may have fallen victim to that axiom.
The longer he stayed there, the more power and influence he acquired at the university. It was more likely that he could get the university president fired than the president could have fired him.
As fate would have it, both Paterno and PSU president Graham Spanier were fired together for failing to do the simplest thing in the world—picking up a phone and calling the police.
As Paterno’s legend grew, the product on the field began to suffer.
Over the last 15 years or so, the more attuned fans began to grumble about the mixed fortunes of the football team. The team that once was supposed to contend for the Big Ten title every year, often struggled to defeat the conference’s powers.
“Success with Honor,” was the motto for Penn State’s football program. While there have been some good seasons, success was fewer and farther between for the Nittany Lions.
For the past 15 years or so, the “Grand Experiment” took a backseat to building the Paterno legacy.
First, he had to catch “Bear” Bryant on the major college all-time winning list.
Then, he had to outlast Bobby Bowden so that record would be his for all time since it is unlikely that anyone will ever coach 46 years at a major college again.
After that, it was the quest for 400 wins.
Finally, in what would be Paterno’s last game, he achieved what to my mind has to be one of the most “apples versus oranges” records ever. He surpassed Grambling’s Eddie Robinson for most Division I wins. Now, I don’t know anyone who believes Grambling’s schedule during Robinson’s long career was the equal of a major college slate like Penn State’s, but someone thought it was a big deal.
The Paterno legacy came crashing down last week when his former long-time assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was indicted on child-sex charges.
Anyone who has read the grand jury report has to be sickened by the acts that Sandusky allegedly committed on innocent young boys.
The incident that eventually resulted in Paterno’s firing by the school’s trustees occurred in 2002 when then graduate assistant coach Mike McQueary allegedly witnessed Sandusky sexually assaulting a small boy in the Penn State showers.
Now, it’s bad enough that McQueary didn’t step in to rescue the boy, but it gets sadder.
Instead, he waited a full day to go talk to Paterno about what he saw.
Paterno waited another day before he passed on McQueary’s concerns to athletic director Tim Curley.
Curley and Gary Schultz, a school administrator, didn’t talk to McQueary for another number of days.
You get the idea by now. That little boy’s safety wasn’t paramount on anyone’s list.
No one, not one of them, felt obligated to bring in law enforcement and child protective services to find that boy and take a sexual predator off the streets for good.
Edmund Burke once wrote,” All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”
Protecting Penn State’s and possibly Paterno’s reputation apparently was more important than getting Sandusky behind bars.
Because of that, Paterno, who had done so much for the university and college football, will forever be remembered for the way he left the job that made him a legend.
Pride truly goeth before the fall.