The firing of Joe Paterno is still a touchy subject in Penn State, as evidenced by this past week's town hall meetings with president Rodney Erickson. While many Penn State followers like myself still maintain that the firing was necessary, others still argued in the meetings that Paterno was thrown under the bus. Yet the former coach himself was pretty much the only one who stayed quiet on the matter over the last few months - until now.
It was ironic timing that Paterno finally gave an interview to the Washington Post on the week of Erickson's town hall tour. But in explaining for himself why he didn't do more to stop Jerry Sandusky when he had the chance years ago, he only showed that he probably did stay around longer than he should have.
Criticizing Paterno for this interview is a little uneasy, given how Sally Jenkins described that he was "wracked by radiation and chemotherapy" and in a wheelchair at the time of the talk. He is clearly very frail in both a personal and professional sense, as the former giant of college football is facing an ignominious end in every sense of the word. One can't help but think that if he had stepped down just a little earlier, before Sandusky was finally exposed, he might have come out a little better for it.
But not only was it necessary to dismiss Paterno after Sandusky's indictment, it probably would have been better if he left 10 years ago. As he explained it to Jenkins in the interview, Paterno sadly painted himself as someone who was ill-equipped to deal with a matter such as this. The money quote came when he stated he had "never heard of, of rape and a man" until Mike McQueary told him about what he allegedly saw Sandusky doing in the showers in 2002.
Leaving aside how Paterno probably didn't use the exact right words, he revealed how he didn't have the right mindset or experience to deal with this kind of crisis. So he turned it over to administration officials who he thought had a better idea, although he turned out to put his faith in the wrong people.
As such, one has to wonder if things would have been different if a younger, more modern coach was in Paterno's shoes 10 years ago. Of course, a coach from a more current era might have also failed to do more and been more concerned with Penn State's image than stopping an alleged child rapist.
But one can't help but think that someone other than Paterno might have had a better grasp of the matter - and wouldn't have settled for McQueary being as allegedly vague as he was in describing what he saw to Paterno. Perhaps McQueary would have brought himself to beat around the bush less if he was talking to a younger and less revered figure than Paterno, but we will never know.
In between the Paterno worship, it was easy to wonder if he had hung around too long even before November 2011. It was even something to wonder about 10 years ago - and maybe if it had been more of a concern back then, things might have been different. This current era in sports and college football is less and less a place for the old guard these days, as they face challenges and issues that they didn't have to face years and decades ago.
No one imagined that Penn State and Paterno would face an issue quite like this, but it does show how programs and coaches have to be prepared for anything now. Paterno was not properly prepared for the likes of Sandusky, and perhaps few people are. Yet those from bygone eras and cultures as closed off as Penn State's have less of a chance to be.
On the field, Paterno's time really had passed by 2002, as he only had a few spurts of glory left with Penn State in his final decade. Off the field, his time passed even sooner than that, as the Washington Post interview showed. Whether he placed his trust in the wrong people, got unclear information or never imagined he would face a crisis like this, the fact was that Paterno didn't have the tools to handle such a grave situation.
If he had stepped aside a little earlier, as he should have in hindsight, maybe both he and Penn State could have saved themselves from finding that out the hard way. As such, this reflects how Penn State and any college program should be more weary of keeping the same people in charge for so long, even if they are living legends. Leaders have to adapt to changing times and unprecedented challenges much faster these days, and Paterno just did not appear to have that in him at the end.
Robert Dougherty is a life-long Philadelphia resident and Penn State fan.
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