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Joe Paterno's tunnel vision caused a train wreck

November 9, 2011

In the midst of a career-ending scandal, Penn State coach Joe Paterno was fired Wednesday night by the school's Board of Trustees.

“With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I could have done more.”
– Joe Paterno
***
Who would have thought it would end this way for the legendary Penn State coach of 46 years? Paterno, the man of high moral values, the guy who once vowed not to retire and “leave college football to the Barry Switzers and Jackie Sherrills” of his coaching fraternity, had failed the biggest morality test of his life.
In the final analysis, it ended worse for the 1950 Brown University graduate than for any scandal-ridden coach of modern times. Paterno, the man who launched the “Grand Experiment” of college football in the late 1960s, had served as an enabler for a former Penn State assistant coach turned pedophile over the past two decades, burying his head in his coaching duties instead of doing the right thing, the obvious thing, and turning his colleague over to the local police.
***
My own stake in this story is quite personal. I graduated from Penn State in 1972 when Joe was still a young coach who had become instantly famous after completing undefeated seasons in 1968-69. The Brooklyn native with the quick wit and intellectual curiosity was adored by the big time media who came to cover his games.
Sports Illustrated writer Merv Hyman coined the term “Grand Experiment” in 1968 for Paterno’s rising program while writing about linebacker Dennis Onkotz taking a chemistry exam on a Saturday morning and then helping win a big football game in the afternoon.
You were proud to be a Penn Stater after reading stories like that. We were all proud when John Cappelletti won the Heisman Trophy and broke down crying while accepting the award at a New York City dinner, dedicating the honor to his little brother who was dying of leukemia. Eventually, this story became a tender movie called “Something for Joey.”
I covered Paterno and Penn State football during the 1970s, first for the student newspaper and then for a local paper in State College. Joe would challenge reporters, young and old, turning questions back in their faces, scolding them for their lack of expertise. It was never a mean thing, just the usual back-and-forth between coach and media. He claimed he never read the newspapers but if you wrote something he didn’t like, Joe would let you know about it before the newspaper landed on his front door step the next morning.
Paterno was very accessible in those days. His phone number remained in the local phone book, even after he got famous. Reporters were allowed to attend practices and hear Joe screaming at his players, an image not quite in line with the national perception of an intellectual man who read the classics and worried only about making his players better people through the experience of playing college football.
“The best thing about coaching,” he once said, “is having a kid come back 10 or 20 years later and thank me for something I told him that he didn’t agree with when he was playing for me.”
We have all heard educators say the same thing. Joe, the English Literature student at Brown, always saw himself as a teacher more than a coach. And yet, he defended his turf fiercely, totally comfortable in a football environment. He would rail against criticism from people who never played the game, quoting Teddy Roosevelt’s statement from the early 1900s:
"It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood … who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."
***
As a sports writer, I learned from the man, too. He had a few football idioms that worked in my job. My favorite was “Take care of the little things and the big things will take care of themselves.” I always saw that as a good motto when putting together the pages of a sports section each night. Do all the detail work, read every caption twice, proof-read stories and headlines, stand back and look at your work, try to eliminate your mistakes before the pages are published.(Self-confession: It doesn't always work.)
***
There was a darker, secretive side to Joe even back then. If one of his student-athletes got into trouble downtown, the first phone call from the police went to Joe’s house, or to one of his aides. It was the type of cover-up procedure that existed in college towns all over the country in those simpler times. The campus police, town police, town government and Chamber of Commerce all worked together to protect their economic investment in the football program.
What you have to realize about college football is it is the only business that matters in places like State College and Columbus, Ohio and Norman, Okla. It has been estimated that Penn State football clears a $50M profit each year. One recent economic study showed that every Penn State home game pumps $59M into the local economy. Hotels, restaurants, bars, pizza joints … every business’s profits are linked to the football program.
The numbers were much smaller in the 1970s, when Beaver Stadium could squeeze only 46,000 fans into its seats. (Capacity now is close to 110,000.) As the sheer size and volume of the football industry exploded in the 1980s, local police stopped serving as intermediaries. The age of innocence was over. Players began to get arrested downtown. Paterno grew harsh in his response to these incidents, growing more distant and defensive as the national and even the local media began to keep track of his program’s run-ins with the law.
During the 1980s, Joe closed football practices to the media. He became more confrontational with the scribes, especially as younger writers took over for the familiar faces who had dueled with him in the early years. The media pack expanded over the next two decades. ESPN, cable TV and the Internet came of age. Joe rolled with it through the 1990s, continuing to field Top 10 teams until the year 2000 rolled around. By now, the whispers for his retirement were growing stronger, even among the big money boosters who sustained the program.
Joe got older, past normal retirement age, in the early 1990s. The presumed heirs to his throne on the coaching staff either moved on or moved out. Jerry Sandusky, the assistant coach whose private demons eventually would bring down the whole program, was forced into retirement in 1999 after taking a young boy to a bowl game as his guest. This was just the tip of the iceberg showing up ahead of the Titanic. The captain of the ship was asleep in his quarters.
Here was the point where Joe Paterno should have turned Sandusky in to the police. But he didn’t. Joe wasn’t much for details as he got older. He stopped taking care of the little things, instead delegating detail work to underqualified subordinates, subservient administrators who had worshipped at his throne for many years, people who were incapable of doing anything to hurt the football program that Paterno had turned into a monster industry.
Joe had outlived the few people who covered his back in the old days, contemporaries with the courage to tell him when he was wrong. Now he was surrounded by lackeys, below and above on the university chain of command.
***
How did this all happen? That’s the question people keep asking this week. My answer is this: Joe lost sight of the details. He lost his own moral compass. Joe just got to the point where he figured the well-being of his football program mattered more than anything else in the world. He had been there a long time. He had become an old man, set in his ways, far removed from the vibrant coach of 40 years ago who matched wits with anyone in his path.
The big secret about Joe Paterno, always, has been the perception that he is a man of the world. Not so. His total focus each week consisted of football and family. He blocked out all the other details, considering them inconsequential. In a way, he’s not unlike New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who has tunnel vision when it comes to his football team.
In Paterno’s case, tunnel vision led to a train wreck that ended his career and tainted his reputation.

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