The Sins of Joe Paterno
Somewhere in Texas, Jackie Sherrill may be smiling.
During almost 30 years as a head college football coach, with stops at Washington State; Pitt, Texas A&M and Mississippi State, Mr. Sherrill developed a reputation as a cheater--someone who would gladly break NCAA rules to get better athletes and improve his team's won-loss record. In fact, Sherrill left both College Station and Starkville under a cloud, and the football programs at A&M and MSU were placed on probation for his transgressions.
So, it's little wonder that Sherrill became something of a pariah in college football, shunned by some of the game's most revered coaches, including Joe Paterno of Penn State. In a famous interview with Sports Illustrated, Joe Pa said he "couldn't" retire from college football and leave the game in the hands of coaches like "Jackie Sherrill and Barry Switzer." Paterno and Sherrill eventually made amends, but the comment stuck, and only reinforced Jackie's reputation as a cheater.
Almost a decade after he retired, Sherrill is still widely reviled for breaking NCAA rules, but ironically enough, he may wind up with a better legacy that Joe Paterno. The legendary Penn State coach was fired last night, the latest casualty of a sex scandal that has engulfed the Nittany Lions football program. Jerry Sandusky, Paterno's long-time defensive coordinator, has been charged with raping several young men who participated in his charity for at-risk youth.
While Sandusky retired from the PSU staff in 1999, he still had full run of the university's football complex and at least one of the rapes may have occurred in a Penn State athletic facility. When Paterno was told of Sandusky's crimes--in 2002--he reportedly informed the university's athletic director, but took no further action. Meanwhile, Sandusky continued preying on young boys for another eight years, protected by a university cover-up.
To his credit, Coach Paterno was one of the few Penn State officials who did anything. The university's current athletic director and a senior administrator lied to investigators about the matter and are now facing perjury charges. But Paterno is hardly a hero in this sordid mess; he never bothered to follow-up on his initial report, for reasons that remain unexplained. And while the Penn State community has rallied around their coach, it became clear that he could no longer retain his job, as the Sandusky scandal exploded. Federal authorities have joined the probe, along with state officials and the NCAA. Suffice it to say that Penn State faces a flood of lawsuits; more university officials may be indicted, and the football program's once-sterling reputation has been forever tarnished.
Recognizing that, Penn State's board of trustees moved quickly on Wednesday evening, dismissing Paterno and the university president during an emergency meeting. With the institution in full damage control mode, Penn State could no longer allow its legendary coach to play out the string. With revelations of more than a dozen victims--some molested in the university football complex--it was time for JoePa to go.
And that seems appropriate. A man lionized in the college football world for his character and integrity did virtually nothing to prevent the sexual abuse of young boys by a man who was once his top assistant. "I should have done more," Paterno said earlier today. Yes, he should have, but he didn't. Perhaps Coach Paterno didn't really believe the allegations against Sandusky, or trusted administrators to handle the dirty work. Besides, he had a football program to run, and a legend to protect.
Now, Paterno leaves college football as the winningest coach in the history of the game, but with a reputation permanently sullied by his own inaction. Some would say JoePa deserves better, but so did those young men, brutalized by a man who was an integral part of Paterno's football machine for so long.
Given JoePa's stunning fall from football grace, Jackie Sherrill is probably satisfied with being remembered as a mere cheater.