AS JOE PATERNO SLIPS AWAY TO HIS DEATH over the next two and a half weeks, I’ll tell this story to people who know the Paternos. I’ll tell them about Sue Paterno’s informality and friendliness to an inquiring stranger, and everyone will say, “That’s them exactly! Joe and Sue—they are very down-to-earth. Very regular people. Wonderful people!”
Something else: As I talk to those who knew Joe Paterno, who worked with him, who played for him, it becomes clear that he was a man who lived up to his reputation. That he believed in developing scholar-athletes, in doing things the right way, and that his ideals for his football program—and the university itself—were on the up-and-up.
Though he could be a charmer in East Coast living rooms, wooing the schoolboys he wanted, once Paterno got hold of those boys, it was a little different. “I remember telling my mother,” running back Charlie Pittman once said, “‘This guy’s too nice to be a football coach.’ Boy, was I wrong.” A dictator. Tough—but tough on everybody. Jimmy Cefalo, a kid from Pittston, became a star wide receiver and fulfilled the requirements for his journalism degree in three years back in the mid-’70s. Winter of his senior year, he signed up for cake courses, which quickly got him summoned to Coach’s office. “These courses are beneath you!” Paterno railed.
Which is why, over the years, Joe Paterno became JoePa, simultaneously fatherly and symbolic. He became a foothold of belief for the hundreds of thousands of middle-of-the-road kids from all over the state who matriculated to the middle of nowhere to get away from home and drink beer and … what? I was one of them. To “get an education,” maybe. But who were we? What in the world would we become in this beautiful, godforsaken outpost? Joe provided a center, a method: “Win with honor.” Collectively. In ugly white uniforms with no names.
A long time ago, he morphed from a very successful football coach to an idea, the idea that in fact we middle-of-the-roaders weren’t average. That at this simple land-grant school plopped in the exact center of the state, a special method was born. We are … Penn State. Let outsiders roll their eyes. Graduates of Happy Valley square their shoulders.
Then they go on to give back. Penn State has the largest dues-paying alumni association of any university … in the world. Some of the alums are very rich and donate millions. They give to the idea that JoePa created. A 23-year-old Ivy League English grad came to a cow college in 1950 as an assistant coach. He was fired this past November, at the cusp of 85, from one of the country’s better research institutions—built, in large part, by him.
We’ve all heard the simple outline of what brought him down. In early March of 2002, assistant football coach Mike McQueary came to Paterno’s house on a Saturday morning and told him what he’d seen the night before in a football locker room: Jerry Sandusky and a young boy in the showers, where Sandusky was fondling the boy or doing something “of a sexual nature” to him, in Paterno’s description of what McQueary said.
A day later, Paterno called his athletic director, Tim Curley. And that’s all he did—the right thing, technically, reporting what he’d been told to his putative superior. But not doing anything more than that made Paterno the most important link in a chain of Penn State officials who looked the other way.
The Thursday in November after Paterno was fired, Penn State alum Anthony Lubrano took his teenage daughter to a concert in State College. Lubrano is a financial consultant who lives in Chester County, and he’s given millions to his school. He happened to run into ex-Penn State football captain and board-of-trustees member Dave Joyner in the Nittany Lion Inn.
“I have never been more disappointed in the board of trustees,” Lubrano said to Joyner, whom he knows. “What you did to that man is unthinkable.”
“Anthony,” Joyner said, “you’re entitled to your opinion. But Joe is the most powerful man in the state.”
Lubrano was flabbergasted, and he got close to Joyner, jabbed a finger at his chest: “Are you suggesting that Joe Paterno is responsible for Sandusky’s behavior?”
“No,” Joyner said. “But he could have done whatever he wanted”—meaning that Paterno should have blown the whistle back in 2002. That would have been the end of Sandusky.
So there we have the two sides, writ large: great power abused, or a great man unjustly vilified. Since Paterno’s firing and death, the court of public opinion has jockeyed one way, then the other.
But as I poke further, I realize neither extreme makes sense. I begin to get an understanding of the way Paterno’s immense power manifested at his university. And why the Sandusky scandal played out the way it did, in a culture Joe Paterno created in the middle of nowhere.