Joe Paterno, God rest him, passed away last week, and the resounding sentiment seemed to be, “what a shame.” The legendary Penn State football coach who seemed invincible only a few short months ago, leading his nationally-ranked Nittany Lions at the ripe old age of 86 and showing few signs of slowing down.
And then came the scandal.
Paterno was fired amidst allegations that his former top assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky sexually assaulted young boys even in the Penn State locker room while he served a prominent role at a local outreach to underprivileged boys. Since then, Paterno’s health had steadily declined up until his death on January 22.
Shame is the operative word here. There is unspeakable shame in the acts committed by Sandusky, and, undeniably, passed on to Paterno by association. There is even a case to be made that the way Paterno was dispatched from his job was shameful. And it’s certainly a shame to see a man who was responsible for so many good things decline in health so rapidly, perhaps as a result of the onslaught of negativity he received in the wake of the scandal.
His death offers another opportunity to reflect on what exactly happened that went so wrong, and why he was in the middle of the blame in the first place. St. John’s football coach John Gagliardi had that opportunity in a recent interview with the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Columnist Bob Sansevere asked him “How should Paterno be remembered?” This was Gagliardi’s response:
“I don’t know why he even should have been connected to that thing (scandal). It’s sad he’s attached to that thing. I don’t know all the (facts). He wasn’t the guy, the culprit. I really feel pretty saddened about it.”
And so you begin to understand why we have scandals like this in the first place. I’m not sure Coach Gagliardi could come off as any more clueless, which itself isn’t a surprise if you’ve ever heard him interview before. Even a Tommie can admit that there is something endearing about Gagliardi’s off-the-wall take on life, which is mostly harmless overall. And certainly he’s a great coach, quite possibly one of the very best in the history of football.
So what does it matter that Gagliardi still seems to be wondering why Paterno received such backlash? Because it calls into question whether Gagliardi is in any way prepared or even capable of doing any better a job than Paterno did if ever faced with such a concern.
Earth to Gagliardi: Paterno “should have been connected” to the Penn State Football Scandal because Paterno was Penn State Football! Sandusky was accused of sexually assaulting vulnerable young boys in the Penn State LOCKER ROOM, and Paterno, as reports later showed, never felt the need to even personally approach Sandusky about it?
It should be noted that Paterno did pass the information on to his superiors, as is protocol. But the fact that he apparently did nothing more speaks much more loudly. Concerned only with protocol, and not with actually figuring out what the hell was going on, Paterno showed that he wasn’t really concerned at all.
It stands as a curious testament to how great our men and our institutions can be while being so very flawed and fragile at the same time. How could Paterno build up one of the greatest and most revered football programs in America, revered for not just wins and losses either but for much more, and yet at the same time failing in such a dramatic, and yet basic way? How could he be so adept at leading a football team to victory and yet so inept at leading that same organization in basic human morals and ethics?
Perhaps there’s no clear answer, but if Gagliardi’s interview is any indication, St. John’s football program might be suffering from the same schizophrenia. The fact of the matter is that Paterno took the fall, not for Sandusky’s sins as Gagliardi apparently still thinks, but for his own sins of standing by and doing essentially nothing.
Is it too much to ask a football coach? I sure hope not. Any football coach worth his clipboard is teaching much more than x’s and o’s: he teaches attention to detail. He teaches accountability. He teaches manly virtues like courage, fortitude, and selflessness. And if nothing else, he teaches the power of authority and obedience.
For a good football coach, nothing happens on the field, on the sidelines, and in the locker room that he doesn’t know about, that he doesn’t care a great deal about. Anything that goes wrong, he corrects. Anyone who resists his authority, he reprimands. Somehow, Joe Paterno failed in this most basic way.
Is it possible that sexual assaults were happening in his own locker room and he didn’t immediately know? Possible. But the moment he found out and he didn’t get right to the bottom of it, reprimand the culprits, make serious corrections and demand accountability, he failed as a football coach, not to mention as a human being.
The fact that a figure of Gagliardi’s stature seemingly fails to realize these basic tenets of leadership and the inherent accountability therein, should set alarms off. I sincerely hope that there is no coach, no university, or any other organization in the country that doesn’t take the time to re-evaluate what they are doing to ensure the Penn State scandal is the last of its kind.
As much as Joe Paterno’s hastened death is a shame, and as shameful as the entire Penn State scandal is, it would be a much greater shame if the best we can do is, “feel pretty saddened about it.”