Story by Joseph Ford Cotto
Not much -- if anything at all -- has yet to be written about the Penn State scandal. From its eruption in late 2011 until the trial of its perpetrator ended almost one year later, it dominated headlines.
The sexual perversion and beastly, let alone predatory, nature of Jerry Sandusky shocked the United States, then eventually the world. Nowhere was the gruesome surprise more acutely felt than in the unassuming borough of State College. Nestled among the rolling mountains of north-central Pennsylvania, its metro area is one of the safest in America.
Indeed, State College is so far removed from the trials and tribulations of Philadelphia, Allentown, Harrisburg, and Pittsburgh that trouble there often comes from activist professors who brandish a most unique lethal weapon -- annoying those around them to death.
Amid such a tranquil environment -- bad as the professors might be, one can hardly compare them to gang-bangers who shoot innocent bystanders for wearing the wrong colors -- the Sandusky story was far from anticipated. That it came out of a landscape Norman Rockwell would have painted makes the situation even more terrifying.
Perhaps nobody was more horrified than Joe Paterno, Penn State University's legendary football coach who had Sandusky at his right hand for decades on end. When Sandusky was indicted, allegations flew at the entire Penn State administrative body. Singled out beyond all others, even President Graham Spainer, was Paterno.
His near-half-century tenure could not withstand political scrutiny and the media firestorm which fueled it. As with most emotionally-charged situations, folks wanted someone to blame, and Sandusky was not enough. Paterno was fired from his post in November 2011 and died just over two months later.
He never did get the chance to comprehensively counter the public sentiment which rose against him -- the general feeling that he had some idea of what went on but stayed quiet so his team could go about its business.
Paterno's son, Jay, has devoted much of his time to clearing the air which permeates his father's legacy. A successful coach in his own right, he is the author of Paterno Legacy: Enduring Lessons from the Life and Death of My Father. Jay recently spoke with me about many topics pertaining to his father's life. Some of our discussion is included below.
Joseph Ford Cotto: Is there any aspect of your father's life work which is not well-known to the public, but should be?
Jay Paterno: There was a lot of public philanthropy in his life but after he passed I learned there was a lot of quiet personal generosity as well. There was a former player who’d adopted an HIV-positive child and also had another child with brain cancer and my father anonymously sent money on a regular basis to help him through that player’s church. That player only found out it was Joe Paterno because the secretary slipped up one time.
There was another part-time semi-retired staff assistant. When she needed to get certain medications that weren’t covered he made sure through a third party that she got money to pay for the medications she needed.
After he died I had a number of people come up and tell me similar stories—all stories that I’d never heard before. He didn’t do it because he wanted recognition, he didn’t do it because he wanted anyone to feel like they owed him. He just felt that he had been very fortunate and he felt an obligation to make the world around him better even if it was something simple and small.
Cotto: In the highly competitive realm of college athletics, 'tough love' is a well-known concept. Did he purvey this to his players, or was there another approach to making them the best they could be?
Paterno: He was tough but fair. He set exacting standards that he expected you to reach. If you failed to reach then there were consequences but the consequences were designed to help you get on track to eventually reach those standards.
In 2017 the media seems to demand that every player who steps out of line get kicked off the team. That is seen as the tough disciplinarian way to do things. Joe would tell us that kicking a kid off the team is the easy way out. He becomes someone else’s problem. The harder path, the more noble path is to keep them around and teach them what they’ve done wrong, help them atone for what they’ve done and hopefully make them better people.
He used to remind us that Saint Paul was killing Christians before he was struck by God on the road to Damascus.