Joe Paterno: How the legendary coach ended up at the epicenter of college football's biggest scandal
When the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke in 2011, many were left with a bad taste in their mouth. And as more details came to light, many questioned whether Joe Paterno could have done something more.
HBO's Paterno, a feature on Joe Paterno, the winningest coach in American college football history stars the evergreen Al Pacino in the title role. The drama centers around the criticism leveled at Paterno in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, where the former assistant coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions was found guilty of 45 counts of child sexual abuse. Having served alongside Paterno for over 30 years at Pennsylvania State University (PSU), the revelations of widespread abuse that occurred under his stewardship raised questions of whether Paterno had purposely turned a blind eye to his assistant's misdemeanors.
Written by Debora Cahn and John C. Richards, the feature is being directed by Barry Levinson of Rain Man fame and also stars Riley Keough, Kathy Baker, Greg Grunberg, Annie Parisse, and Ben Tyler Cook. Paterno is set to debut on April 7, and with the controversy still fresh on the minds of many Americans, especially with the implications it had for Penn State, it's high time we take a look back at the sequence of events that led to Sandusky sent behind bars for the rest of his life.
Having played for Penn State, starting at the defensive end from 1963 to 1965, he returned to the university in 1969 to serve as the assistant of Joe Paterno. He initially served as the defensive line coach, before then becoming linebacker coach, and finally defensive coordinator in 1977. The latter would be a position he would make his own, coaching excellent defensive squads and earning the moniker of 'Linebacker U.'
After his seemingly distinguished career as a coach, Sandusky began focusing on his non-profit charity, Second Mile, which he founded in 1977 in a bid to serve Pennsylvania's underprivileged and at-risk youth. President George H.W. Bush even praised the group as a 'shining example' of charity work, but beginning from 2008, the name of the organization came to be associated with something much more sinister, and Sandusky's, as well as Paterno's reputation, began to take a nosedive.
An investigation was initiated against Sandusky by the Pennsylvania attorney general's office after a male high school student accused the assistant coach of sexual abuse, initially building up slowly but eventually gathering pace and becoming more frantic as it emerged that Sandusky had used his charity as a front to lure vulnerable victims.
The story of the investigation was initially broken by The Patriot-News but barely received any attention because many felt that the paper was trying to tarnish Sandusky's, as well as PSU's stellar reputation. But soon enough, the story would hit the national headlines.
As details began to emerge about Sandusky's horrific and prolonged sexual abuse, it came to be known that he specifically targeted young, fatherless boys aged between 8-12. According to investigators, Sandusky would lure these boys in through his charity, initially employing child grooming strategies such as bestowing gifts and offering trips to football games so the victim would become comfortable around him. He would eventually increase his inappropriate touching and then finally, initiate sexual behavior in the locker room showers.
Following a three-year investigation, Sandusky was arrested and charged with 52 counts of sexual abuse of young boys over a 15-year period from 1994 to 2009. According to grand jury testimony, Sandusky assaulted these boys in numerous locations, ranging from his house basement to his car to the Penn State's University Park campus and the East Area Locker Rooms on campus. He was found guilty of 45 of these charges and effectively sentenced to life in prison.
But while his trial and subsequent imprisonment have been meticulously covered and reported, his fall also saw numerous high-ranking officials at Penn State come under scrutiny for what many perceived to be an institutional failure at protecting the lives of young children from a serial predator. Having quite possibly been aware of Sandusky's deeds and still doing nothing about it, these men were, in some capacity, complicit in the crimes as well and chief among those men was Joe Paterno.
Nothing less than a legend on the college football scene, the bespectacled Paterno served as the head coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions from 1966 to 2011, leading them to 409 victories and becoming the most victorious coach in college football history. He also led Penn State to two national championships and five undefeated, untied seasons, putting the university on the map as a premier footballing destination. But the breaking of the Sandusky scandal in 2011 sullied his reputation and saw him unceremoniously removed as the coach of the institution he had served for 45 years despite claiming he would do so on his own terms at the end of the season.
To many, Paterno's role in the cover-up is questionable at best, but the undisputed fact remains that he was aware of his assistant coach's crimes.
In 2002, Penn State graduate coach Mike McQueary said he heard slapping sounds in the showers and walked in on Sandusky anally raping a 10-year-old boy. On his doctor's advice, he reported the incident to Paterno, explicitly informing him that what he saw was of a sexual nature. In response, Paterno notified Athletic Director Tim Curley and then Vice President of Finance and Business Gary Schultz, to whom the university police had to report to. Despite the nature of the incident, none of them reported the allegations to the police.
This was a grey area at the time because Pennsylvania state laws required an employee who came to know about child sexual abuse to only report it to their immediate supervisor, a procedure that Paterno had technically followed. However, because of the widespread nature of Sandusky's abuse, many felt Paterno should have done more to put a stop to his assistant, who would continue abusing vulnerable children for a further eight years.
Paterno, Curley, and Schultz did the bare minimum after McQueary's report. They took away Sandusky's access to the locker room and reported the incident to Second Mile, which considering it was overseen was Sandusky himself, had no desired effect. Many felt aggrieved because it was the trio who had arguably enabled Sandusky in the first place. The assistant coach's maltreatment of the boys began in 1999.
Further attention was later drawn to his role in a possible cover-up by the New York Times, who reported that Paterno opened surprise negotiations to prematurely end his contract in January 2011, 11 months before the actual scandal broke and the same month he was notified of the police's investigation. A deal would have meant he walked away with a package totaling $5.5 million: a $3 million cash payout, forgiveness of a $350,000 interest-free loan issued by the university, and the use of a private box at Beaver Stadium and a private jet for 25 years.
An independent investigation into the abuse led by former FBI director Louis Freeh, including a team of former federal prosecutors and FBI agents found that Paterno, Schultz, Curley, and University president Graham Spanier "empowered Sandusky to attract potential victims to the campus and football events by allowing him to have continued, unrestricted and unsupervised access to the University's facilities and affiliation with the University's prominent football program."
This was because following his retirement, a deal was struck between the University and Sandusky wherein he was permitted to use a locker, weight rooms, fitness facilities, and training room in the East Area locker room complex, the latter of which was the scene of many of Sandusky's crimes. He was also given an office and a phone in the complex, with the agreement also signed by Curley and Schultz.
The end product of the investigation was the Freeh report, which was the culmination of the interviews of over 400 people and the review of 3.5 million documents. It concluded that the four men 'failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade,' and that they had 'concealed Sandusky's activities from the Board of Trustees, the University community and authorities.'
While most of the anger was directed at Sandusky, a considerable portion found its way to Paterno. However, his long tenure at the university, combined with the tremendous success he had with his team meant that public support was firmly behind the now-beleaguered coach. Three days after the initial arrest of Sandusky, several hundred students gathered outside Paterno's home to show their support, chanting "Let Joe Stay."
Paterno had the backing of the masses but not that of the Penn State Board of Trustees. Despite offering to resign at the end of the current seasons, the board felt that it had to engage in damage control, thus terminating his contract with immediate effect just a day after the crowd's show of support.
Paterno was told of his dismissal by phone. This did not sit well with the throng of supporters who were less than happy with the board's trigger-happy decision and what they perceived to be an apparent lack of respect to a coach who had single-handedly raised the profile of the university in the country.
10,000 rioted on the streets and as protests got violent, rocks were hurled, street signs were torn down, and a news van was upended. Students also held a candlelight vigil for Paterno, with the event shown live on news networks across the country. But the decision had been made. Tom Bradley was announced as Paterno's successor for the rest of the reason and an era had come to an end in the most undignified way.
PSU's damage control also involved removing Sandusky's image from a mural near the university and renaming an ice cream flavor which had been created in the sexual predator's honor. Both, Graham Spanier and Mike McQueary, were put on 'indefinite paid administrative leave' as well. The chairman of the board, Steve Garban, also stepped down after it emerged that he had intentionally not disseminated information about Sandusky to the rest of the board.
The University was on the receiving end of some of the most severe sanctions handed down in the history of collegiate athletics. PSU was fined $60 million, stripped of a total of 40 scholarships from 2013 to 2017, banned from postseason play for the next four years, and was harshly rebuked by the NCAA for 'failing to value and uphold institutional integrity, breaching both NCAA Constitution and Division I rules.'
PSU was not the only one that had to deal with the consequences of the scandal. Following the release of the Freeh report, Nike removed Paterno's name from the Joe Paterno Child Development Center and Brown University, his alma mater, announced they would remove his name from its annual award honoring outstanding male freshman athletes. There were also calls for his statue outside the Beaver Stadium to be removed, punctuated by a plane that flew over the campus with a banner that read: "Take the statue down or we will." The pressure worked, and the statue was taken down. He was also stripped of his last 111 wins, taking him down to 12th on the all-time wins list - a move that would later be reversed.
Paterno will probably be glad he was not witness to the trials of his peers and the fallout that followed Sandusky's arrest. He only lived for two more months after the scandal broke, dying of complications from his lung cancer on January 22, 2012. His name has been tainted, but his legacy will remain intact.
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