Paterno certainly is no victim

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Is it just me or do way too many people believe Joe Paterno is a victim? His wife, Sue, who says he "deserved better" after 61 years of loyal service to Penn State. The many folks who wasted Penn State president Rodney Erickson's time last week at three town hall-style meetings by screaming at the injustice of Paterno's firing. The countless thousands of "We Are ... Penn Staters!" across America who think, because Paterno was the best college football coach who ever lived, he is incapable of doing anything wrong or making a human mistake.

I got news for all of 'em.

Paterno is no victim.

He might not be the biggest villain in the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, but he is certainly no victim.

Paterno did an interview with the Washington Post last week, the first time he has spoken publicly since his firing Nov. 9 via telephone call. He said Penn State assistant coach Mike McQueary didn't make clear to him the severity of what he saw in 2002 in the showers at the university's Lasch Football Building, where Sandusky -- Penn State's former long-time defensive coordinator -- allegedly sodomized a boy of about 10. He said he "didn't feel adequate" to deal with the situation and passed it on to his "superiors" -- as if he had any at Penn State -- "people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did." He said he was "afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was" and "backed away" from it.

All of it strikes me as being a crock, especially that last part.

Afraid of jeopardizing university protocol?

Paterno long balked at his players being disciplined by the university the way it disciplined other students.

Apparently, protocol only means something when it's convenient.

Maybe Paterno didn't press McQueary for more details even though he said McQueary clearly was upset. But he should have. Maybe Paterno, then 75, wasn't "adequate" to deal with the problem. Then he still shouldn't have been the Penn State coach. Certainly, Paterno met his legal obligation by passing McQueary and his tragic story on to former athletic director Tim Curley and former university vice president Gary Schultz, his supposed superiors. But didn't he have a moral obligation to follow up any investigation? Or lack of an investigation?

That's right, I forgot.

University procedure.

Please.

Of course, the Paterno supporters are lining up to buy what he is selling. They came out for the town hall meetings with Erickson in Pittsburgh, King of Prussia near Philadelphia and New York in an angry mood. How dare Penn State fire Paterno! What you did to Paterno was unconscionable!

Former Penn State great and Steelers Hall of Famer Franco Harris was among the loudest who spoke out. He called for Penn State's entire 32-member Board of Trustees to be replaced. "Nobody has done more for Penn State than Joe Paterno," he said.

Are Harris and the others really that blindly loyal to Paterno?

Forget that Paterno had to go. The Penn State trustees got that right because of what they called the "extraordinary circumstances" of the Sandusky case and its impact -- perceived or otherwise -- on the football program. "The board's unanimous judgment was that coach Paterno could not be expected to continue to perform his duties," they said in a statement last week.

There was no way Paterno could have stayed on as coach even though he has been little more than a figurehead for several years. He wasn't strong enough mentally or physically to deal with the media scrutiny that followed the arrest of Sandusky, who is charged with more than 50 counts of sexually abusing boys over a 15-year period. It was hard enough for his replacement, interim coach Tom Bradley, who is 30 years younger.

What really was disappointing about the Erickson meetings was that the Paterno talk dominated the sessions. Too few people asked Erickson what he and the trustees knew about Sandusky and what role they might have played in a cover-up. Too few asked about his plans for Penn State in the days ahead. It wasn't just a waste of time for Erickson. It was a waste for those who truly care about Penn State and see the university as something bigger than just a winning football coach.

Paterno, 85, has become a sympathetic figure because of major health issues. Sally Jenkins, the Washington Post reporter who wrote the story, portrayed him as a feeble old man, ravaged by radiation and chemotherapy treatments for lung cancer that was diagnosed only days after his firing. She described his black wig and talked of a tremor in his hand. She interviewed him one day as he sat in a wheelchair because of his broken pelvis from a fall on Dec. 10, the next day when he was in bed, too weak to get up. He was hospitalized Friday for what his family described as minor complications from his cancer treatments.

Harris is spot-on about one thing about Paterno. The coach has done much good for Penn State, good that never should be forgotten. Maybe there have been other men and women who have done more positive things for a university and had a greater impact, but it's hard to come up with a name. It's impossible for me, actually.

But that doesn't change the final chapter of the Paterno story.

He said a lot of things in that interview last week, but nothing more significant than what he said about the Sandusky scandal in a statement that was released by his family only hours before his firing.

"In hindsight, I wish I had done more."


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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