Bob Knight with the player whose allegations began his downfall. (Photo used via Getty Images subscription; photo by Gary Mook).
Like everyone else, I've been following the Penn State story closely, but haven't had much to say about it because, well, why would I? Ultimately, while it directly impacts the Big Ten, it's a national story that is being covered comprehensively by the local and national media. Last night, that changed to some degree. The parallels between the scene last night in State College, with the imromptu rally on Joe Paterno's lawn and the demonstrations or riots or whatever they were, was eerily if superficially similar to the scene in Bloomington on September 10, 2000, the day that Bob Knight was fired by Myles Brand. I wasn't on campus at the time, but all IU fans recall the video of various campus demonstrations, some of which turned to vandalism, and the surreal image of a fired Bob Knight, walking out of Assembly Hall for the last time, thanking the students for their support and telling them to go home.
The comparisons between Paterno and Knight are a mixed bag . Sure, each is the greatest coach in the history of his program, and is the iconic figure in his school's athletic history. Each has a reputation for impeccable compliance with NCAA rules and recruiting ethics. Each took far less than his market rate salary from the university and donated much of what he did make to the university. Each was revered by his school's fans to the point of near idolatry. The main difference between the two men is that Paterno enjoyed his stellar reputation among nearly all college football fans, while outside of Indiana, Knight's positive traits usually were used as a setup for criticism of his obvious flaws. When Bob Knight was fired, it essentially was for doing what he always had done. As for Paterno...a week ago, would you have believed any of this? Would there have been a college football program where something like this seemed less likely to happen? For all of his profanity, his ill-considered public statements, his temper tantrums, and aggressive conduct toward his players, nothing that happened under Knight's watch ever approached what was going on in Penn State's football facility under Paterno's figurative watch. This stuff happened. At Penn State.
I have no direct or indirect connection to Penn State, but I've admired Paterno ever since his team vanquished the evil Miami Hurricanes for the 1986 national championship. As a member of the Marching Hundred when Penn State made its first-ever trip to Bloomington in 1994, I recall being very hopeful that my position on the field would allow me to shake Paterno's hand as he left the field (it didn't). I don't recall ever thinking that about Hayden Fry, for instance. Paterno was a living legend, and even 20 years ago he seemed like a bridge between the generations of college football.
All that said, reading about this case has me very conflicted. When I read the excuse-making nonsense from Penn State fans about a man they regard as practically Christlike, I want to see Paterno publicly humiliated, given a cardboard box and told to clean out his office. To say that I have been taken aback by the reverence PSU fans have for the man is an understatement, especially considering that as someone who grew up in Indiana in the 1980s and was a student at IU for the tail end of Knight's glory years, I thought I knew what it was like for a fan base to be in the bag for its coach. When I look nearly everywhere else and see the overheated rhetoric toward PSU and Paterno, I want to take a step back. There is one unambiguously evil actor in this saga: Jerry Sandusky. I think the picture blurs a little bit when talking about the others, including Paterno, the Penn State administration, and assistant coach Mike McQueary. The criticism of the way McQueary reacted to the assault he witnessed, running home and talking to his dad about it as opposed to trying to kill Jerry Sandusky with his bare hands, has been discussed elsewhere. The same is true of Paterno's reaction, which included the legally sufficient call to his superiors but none of the outrage that would be expected of a morally upright person and the most powerful person on the Penn State campus. In the end, I'm left with two difficult-to-reconcile positions: I think that Paterno's handling of this situation was abominable, and he deserves to lose his career over it. At the same time, I don't think that Paterno's reputation was fraudulently earned. I think he really was that guy.
This raises all sorts of difficult questions about how people behave in institutions and how they react to news that is difficult to reconcile with what they believe. Jerry Sandusky worked for Paterno for 32 years. I would have to imagine that whether it was 1998 or 2002 when he learned of these allegations, it must have been very difficult to believe, no matter how credible he thought the accusers or witnesses were. Imagine receiving such news about a longtime trusted co-worker, a family member, a favorite teacher, or, of course, a beloved priest or minister. The internet is full of people completely sure of how they would react to such unmitigated evil, but I don't think it's that simple. There is a reason Oskar Schindler is so famous, folks. Okay, the main reason is Steven Spielberg, but there is a reason his acts are so noteworthy. Most people, people who would never do such evil themselves, won't actually put anything on the line to stop it.
There's another issue, of course. I don't want to sound ageist or as if I am dismissive of the contributions of the elderly, but Joe Paterno is way too old to have such a big and demanding job, and probably has been too old for a long, long time. The acts of Sandusky became known to Paterno nearly a decade ago. By that time Paterno was already the same age that Ronald Reagan was in his second term as president. This is, of course, a politics-free zone, and I don't mean to make a point about Reagan's policies, his legacy as president, or anything else. But I think that Reagan's supporters and detractors generally would agree, and could confirm with video, that the Reagan of 1986 bore only a shadow of a resemblance to the Reagan of 1980. And Paterno passed that age a decade ago! Again, I know that people well into their 70s, 80s, and 90s can and do retain their faculties and are capable of working, managing their affairs, and positively contributing to society. But being a head football coach, like being President, is a huge, all-consuming, physically and mentally exhausting job.
I have a hard time believing that the Paterno of 1992 would have handled this the same way as the Paterno of 2002. Of course, even well into his 70s Paterno should have handled it differently, and as I say above, this should be a career-ending misstep. But the whole thing strikes me as a situation where a combination of stubbornness and fatigue and perhaps not fully comprehending what he was being told or being able to imagine that his trusted assistant would be capable of such things. Perhaps I'm being overly charitable, but that's better than the alternative, which is that Paterno was fully conscious of and indifferent to the plight of these kids. I think that one of the reasons people are going so hard after Paterno on this issue, making ridiculous demands that Penn State forfeit its season or shutter the football program or be tossed out of the Big Ten, is because they want to believe that this is the result of uniquely evil intent on the part of Paterno and PSU administrators. I really wish I thought it were that simple.
This is the downside of powerful, iconic coaches such as Paterno and Knight. I certainly don't want to sound like Myles Brand, but schools do have to walk a fine line between allowing great coaches the latitude to do their job on one hand, and ceding governance of a visible part of the university on the other hand. The Penn State football program seems to have had a leadership deficit at the top for some time, but Paterno was too powerful for anyone to do anything about it. This is a sad situation, mostly for the victims, especially those violated after Sandusky should have been stopped. But it also is sad because I doubt that most of the factors that allowed this to happen are in any way unique to Penn State.