JoePa gets his wins back: The NCAA got what it wanted from Joe Paterno, moves on
The headlines today out of Happy Valley, Pa., have the NCAA about to restore 112 Penn State football wins previously vacated in the final years of the Joe Paterno era in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
Still unclear is why the NCAA wanted the wins vacated in the first place.
Actually, it’s maybe probably pretty obvious why. For decades Paterno set himself and the Penn State football program as paragons of virtue in the sea of raw sewage that is college athletics. Paterno and Penn State didn’t just win; they won the right way, with kids who went to class, graduated, some of them going on to the NFL, those and the others all becoming productive members of society.
Which should have been something for the NCAA to uphold, but the way Paterno rubbed it in earned him legions of detractors.
When it became apparent that Sandusky, his long-time right-hand man, was a literal monster who used his status as a big-time college football coach to prey on young boys, it was easy time to sharpen the knives and carve up the Paterno legacy post haste.
Paterno was cast as the enabler, a man concerned entirely with winning football games, to the point of allowing young boys to be raped by his close friend in a cover-up that protected the shield and allowed the focus to be where he wanted it to be, on the field, and for that, he didn’t deserve the honor that his teams had earned for him on the field as college football’s all-time winningest coach.
Reality is always more complicated than the narratives that we assign to it. To be certain, Paterno was driven by a single-minded desire to win football games; one doesn’t win 409 of them by taking one’s eyes off the gridiron prize too often. Paterno was also a benefactor to his adopted school, whether out of the goodness of his heart, to burnish his image of having a good enough heart to be a benefactor to aid in recruiting, or a combination of both, but either way, he gave millions to Penn State, and it did some good.
JoePa could have also done more to try to stop Sandusky from continuing to abuse young boys once another assistant reported to him that he thought he had witnessed Sandusky in the act, though even that can be debated. Paterno went to his grave insisting that he had done what was required of him in reporting what he had been told to campus administrators; detractors say he should have gone straight to police, and if he had, the abuse would have ended then and there.
Another complicated bit of reality there: Sandusky had already been let off the hook in another abuse investigation that, had charges been pursued, could itself have ended the abuse that the former coach was perpetrating many years earlier.
By not being more forceful, Paterno was protecting his program to give it some sort of competitive advantage, by not allowing his program to be dragged through the media PR mud that could have some impact on recruiting. That’s what the NCAA led us to believe was its rationale in vacating the wins, an act usually reserved for programs being punished for things like boosters paying players under the table, schools that create entire academic curriculums that exist solely to keep players eligible, and similar sorts of outright cheating.
The connection between what Sandusky as a former assistant coach was accused of and ultimately convicted for and the ability of Penn State football to compete was always tenuous, so it isn’t really surprising that the NCAA backed down on the vacation of wins.
And besides, the point was made. Paterno died a broken man in many respects, betrayed by his long-time assistant, his adopted school, ultimately himself, stripped of a record that obviously had meant a lot to him.
Score that one for the NCAA.
Taking the wins away did nothing to make the abominations unleashed upon Sandusky’s many victims right; nor did the unprecedented sanctions heaped down upon Penn State football do anything to bring any sense of balance to the way Happy Valley treats its fall Saturdays.
Bill O’Brien and now James Franklin continue to try their damnedest to win football games, and even with the sanctions as a hindrance, Penn State football has been able to more than hold its own, to the delight of the legions who fill up Beaver Stadium.
Jerry Sandusky, for his part, rots in jail, continuing to insist that he is innocent, his ability to play the system, as he did when he was able to convince social workers to allow him and his wife to take in foster children, and convince investigators looking into claims that he was abusing young boys that it was all a misunderstanding, having long since played out.
And Joe Paterno, one-time paragon of virtue, dragged down from that perch like the statue that once stood in front of Beaver Stadium as a testament to his ability to win football games, continues to be dead, though now in death he’s back to being college football’s all-time winningest coach.
– Column by Chris Graham