We all have been bombarded with pros and cons relating to the removal of the Joe Paterno statue outside the stadium he effectively more than doubled in size through his 60+ year tenure. They come from blogs, the sports press, the guy sitting at the next bar stool, and from your mom when she calls to speak her piece on the matter.
Mark Coomes believes that the statue should remain and so do I.
“… big-time football has no business on college campuses.” —George Will
That Joe was the emperor of the football program at Penn State for at least 40 of those years is not something that anyone in his right mind can contest. Hell, he served as head football coach for 36% of the time Penn State has competed in intercollegiate football, which began in 1887!
Respected Athletic Director Ernie McCoy hired Paterno, then assistant coach, as head coach earning $20,000 per year to succeed Rip Engle in 1966. Paterno worked for McCoy until 1970, when he retired. Joe credited McCoy as “the guy who turned this whole athletic program around.”
Another key retirement in 1970 was President Eric A. “Prexy” Walker. An Englishman by birth and a Harvard electrical engineer by trade, he also held an MBA and a PhD from Harvard. He was a stern administrator who believed firmly in the Penn State culture of the time, that the institution would not graduate illiterate engineers. He lived on campus, in a house that is now part of the Hintz Alumni Center. Behind the house was a pond where in the aftermath of the great 1964 27-0 superdominant victory over Ohio State in Columbus, some “exuberant” students conducted an empirical test of the conjecture that the Volkswagen beetle of that era was so airtight it would float — and this one did. Walker had taken the job in 1956, when Milton S. Eisenhower, brother of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, retired.
Walker was in charge of the university as a whole. He was responsible for the creation of the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. He was also in charge of McCoy, who was, in turn, in charge of Paterno. The lines of the functional organization were clearly defined in theory and in practice. If they would have remained that way after both Walker and McCoy retired in 1970, one could argue that Paterno would not have had the wherewithal to exceed the presumed authority of a football coach. But let’s drag ourselves back to reality.
Abetted by success on the football field, Joe Paterno began a successful, systematic consolidation of power. Having been named AFCA Coach of the Year in 1968, he was quite the desirable commodity in both college and pro football. The Steelers hired Chuck Noll after Paterno turned them down in 1969. The New York Giants offered Paterno the head coaching job several times in the 1970s and 1980s. The University of Michigan contacted Paterno for its head coaching vacancy that would eventually be filled by Bo Schembechler. Finally, Joe wrestled with a 1972 offer by the New England Patriots. He accepted it, but three weeks later reneged on his commitment. From that moment on, Joe was the Anointed One at Penn State.
Joe served a stint as both Athletic Director and Head Football Coach, and was succeeded by his friend, publicist Jim Tarman, who along with Paterno was impetus for the successful marketing of the program. Penn State was transformed from an eastern independent power to a fledgling Big Ten institution during Tarman’s tenure as AD.
The team also grabbed two national championships during the 1980s and was widely respected as a powerhouse, with Joe Paterno’s image inextricably associated with Penn State University. The first two years in the Big Ten were a continuation of the successes of the 1980s. The Rose Bowl team of 1994 was looked upon as one of the best offensive teams ever to walk onto a college football field. Indeed, were it not for Nebraska’s victory in the 1995 Orange Bowl, Penn State would have captured another national championship for that undefeated campaign. But from there, things went downhill.
Fast forward to 2011. Joe’s reputation had suffered over a decade and a half of largely mediocre, forgettable teams. Recruiting was suffering, and although “The Dark Years” had presumably passed by 2011, Penn State had settled into a role as a Big Ten mid-pack player. However, Paterno had maintained his ever strengthening iron grip on the program, even in the presence of declining teams and declining health. He was a stubborn old guy, yes, but he was an indelible presence during six decades. He cannot be erased.
Now, the Freeh Report has been issued, and it implicated Paterno in the University’s failures associated with enabling the sexual predator Jerry Sandusky to perpetrate his crimes on the Penn State campus. You all know the story by now. That brings us to the statue issue.
When his (should I capitalize the “H”?) statue was erected he publicly declared his opposition to it, but we never knew when to believe Joe’s humble veneer or view it as merely his public persona. Nevertheless it was erected — not a great idea for any currently tenured head coach, if at all, for precisely the reasons that it is being presently considered for demolition. Most of those calling for its demise fit into two categories: 1) Penn State haters who are happy to know that PSU’s arrogantly projected “Success with Honor” dictum was phony , and 2) self-righteous moralists who actually think getting rid of Paterno’s image will erase the whole sordid Sandusky affair from everyone’s memory.
Just today, the bronze effigy has been aerially threatened by a banner towed by a small airplane. It read “TAKE THE STATUE DOWN OR WE WILL.” Just who the hell “we” are is presently unknown. I would imagine that aerial sign companies in the Central Pennsylvania area will be grilled about it. This malicious threat comes in the wake of the BoT issuing its statement to the effect that any decisions about the statue would be delayed indefinitely.
Yesterday, student leaders removed Paterno’s name from their game week tent encampment, which was formerly called Paternoville. It will henceforth be named Nittanyville. Also, Nike removed Paterno’s name from its child care building in Beaverton, OR, and Brown University, Joe’s alma mater, renamed a scholarship formerly named for the late coach. Thus, the Depaternoization cleansing program (called Paternowashing by CBS Sports) continues apace.
That fits well into our present cowardly culture, in which we’re in constant denial of societal problems. We can no longer confront issues head on without fear of offending someone. If we confront feelings about homosexuality, we’re automatically branded as “homophobes” (a made up word); if we confront racial issues, we’re automatically racists (why aren’t we negrophobes or blancophobes? — oh yeah, I guess it’s a bad connotation to fear other races); and, in general, we try our damnedest to shield ourselves and our children from unpleasant revelations about the darker side of human nature (no racial pun intended). But the Sandusky crimes can never be swept under a rug, lest it happen again.
Neither can Paterno. Erasing his presence from the campus and the world will only serve to enhance his legendary status, given enough time. Time heals all wounds. Muhammad Ali, formerly Cassius Clay, was vilified for his outspoken nature, his draft dodging, and the myth of tossing his Olympic medal off a bridge in Louisville. Yeah, he had a big mouth. Many people considered him a criminal. However, now, in his old age, he is regarded as an elder statesman of sports and revered by society. It always seems to work that way. Even O.J. Simpson, currently in jail, possibly for a lesser crime than the capital felony many believe he perpetrated, has records that remain indelibly inscribed in record books.
Paterno deserves a spot in the annals of the history of Penn State. We need to get out of this denial thing and confront the differences, mistakes, and personal foibles that make us human. Joe Paterno was a human being, albeit a powerful one, but he was not a god, and was flawed as are all human beings. Furthermore, his track record of accomplishments will not be erased. It is doubtful whether the record book will ever even have an asterisk to satisfy the whiners who think the records should go away — swept under the rug with the rest of the unseemly Sandusky affair.
Let us recognize that Joseph Vincent Paterno was neither all good nor all bad. If the Freeh Report was correct, he made some very serious mistakes. However, he also won two national championships, produced a helluva lot of good men, and generously donated his personal money to the University, particularly the library. We need to recognize these successes, which accompanied by the assumption that he could do what he wanted, even with crimes occurring in his midst, make for a complete picture of a powerful figure who dominated the campus for over 40 years.
You whine, “it’s just football — football should not have such influence over academe,” to which I respond that it just happens to be the way it is, not just at Penn State, but also at just about every university with an NCAA Division I football team. Football stimulates alumni to contribute funds, making it an inextricable part of those schools. So, once again, confront the reality of today’s big universities. Don’t hang that whole thing on Joe.
Where money and power are involved, corruption will exist. It can take many forms, recruiting violations, payments to so-called student athletes, inordinate influence by boosters, etc. Silence is an important and expected concept relating to the corrupt system. What happens in the university stays in the university. Breeches of omerta are discouraged with only slightly smaller disincentives than would be employed by the Mafia.
It’s all part of major universities, not just Penn State. This is not to exonerate Penn State or mitigate its egregious failures, but to describe a corrupt culture that needs to be outed. The statue needs to serve as an omnipresent reminder of how we (yes, we) have allowed the cart to be expected to draw the horse. Give me any university and a team of investigators; I’ll guarantee that I find plenty of transgressions, both ethical and legal.
Anyone who believes the fairy tale that Penn State — or any of its peers — is squeaky clean is in straight-on, head-up-the-ass denial. “Say it isn’t so, Joe!” I worked in one such institution for 13 years. You’ve read some of my allusions to offenses that were swept under the rug there. It was not uncommon there for a head coach to visit an instructor to “request” that a grade be changed to keep a player academically eligible. “Student” athletes, indeed!
On ABC’s “This Week”, conservative panelist George Will addressed the same point with respect to the Penn State scandal:
“We have grafted a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry onto higher education. It is inherently discordant with the mission of the university; it is inherently corrupting; and you’re going to get [here] and elsewhere different forms of corruption, but always forms of corruption because big-time football has no business on college campuses.”
Will this corrupt culture ever be changed? That appears to be about as likely as the United States’ national politics to be transmogrified out of its two-party dynamic. However, any chances of permanently fixing the problem will completely evaporate if we succeed in burying its unpleasant taste under gallons of politically correct molasses.
So, I will once again propose that the statue should not be removed, but that it should be moved to a new “Joe Paterno Era” room in the All Sports Museum that will commemorate Paterno’s successes as well as his failures. While some will object, perhaps proposing an empty elevator shaft or a septic tank, the purpose of remembering and avoiding a repetition of the sins of the past will be well served into the future, by memorializing the good and bad of Joe’s larger than life 60+ year presence on the Penn State campus. The story needs to be told to future generations.