by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

“All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
-Lord Acton, famous English historian

We always expected that Joe Paterno’s regime at Penn State was going to end in an awkward and perhaps unsightly manner. Perhaps with “Shades” unwilling to retire and even being forcibly removed from the Nittany Lions’ football offices in a nuclear version of Bobby Bowden’s drawn-out exit at Florida State.

But we never expected Paterno’s regime to end in scandal. And certainly not one as sordid as the mess last week at Penn State in the wake of the charges against former assistant Jerry Sandusky.

For the record, we don’t need to amplify on most of the outrage being voiced in response to recent developments in Happy Valley. In our 55 publishing seasons with TGS, we only recall one college sports scandal, involving Baylor basketball, being remotely as disturbing.

We also know that prosecutors occasionally miss the mark on such cases; Duke’s lacrosse controversy comes to mind. Having said that, however, it is almost impossible to reserve judgement on the Sandusky matter unless assuming the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office has somehow been barking up the wrong tree. And, after several years of authorities carefully building the case against Paterno’s long-time confidante, we think those chances are pretty slim.

With the exception of a few Paterno apologists, the majority of the sporting public has been accepting of the school’s decision to cut ties with Paterno and school president Graham Spanier. Although we admit to being a bit mystified why so much of the sporting press continues to promote Paterno as saint-like (they must call him “Saint Joe” for a reason, right?) and righteous, an almost-singular source of all that is supposedly good and just about college athletics.

While acknowledging Paterno’s vast contributions to the game and his greatness as a coach, please spare us another example of selective treatment and labeling, for which the sporting press is famous.

The labeling drill is as time-worn as sports itself. So-and-so is a legend; so-and-so is a genius; so-and-so can’t win the big one. And the mainstream sporting press has long given passes to supposed iconic and legendary figures. Muhammad Ali (a future subject on these pages when we have the space to devote to last week’s passing of old foil Smokin’ Joe Frazier) is a classic example, of which we will elaborate upon at the proper time. Rarely has anything negative been printed about Vince Lombardi. Much like Paterno, UCLA hoops coach John Wooden was always granted a wide berth by the sporting press which mostly overlooked the acknowledged corruptive influences (specifically booster Sam Gilbert) in the “Wizard of Westwood’s” Bruin program. Paul “Bear” Bryant has similarly been granted an exemption by the majority of the sporting press, which chose to ignore solid evidence of various shenanigans while The Bear was coaching at Kentucky and Alabama. And, as suggested by Bryant biographer Allen Barra and respected law professor Paul Kirby (author of the 1986 book, Fumble, a fascinating narrative on the famous case involving the Saturday Evening Post), perhaps committing perjury to protect himself and Georgia HC Wally Butts from charges of conspiring to rig a result in a game between Bryant’s Crimson Tide and Butts’ Bulldogs.

Paterno’s continuing inclusion in that group of icons will be put to the test in the coming months and years as the fallout from the Sandusky mess continues to unfold. For the moment, at least, we are a still bit disappointed by the mainstream media continuing to promulgate the “Saint Joe” persona in light of some fairly damning evidence that suggests otherwise.

And we’re not even talking about some of Paterno’s acknowledged peculiarities, such as believing he would meet the same fate when retiring as did friend Bryant, unlike Paterno a hard-liver who died less than a month after he coached his final game. Or ruthlessly running up scores to curry favor with pollsters, an act which Paterno was especially guilty after losing ground to Nebraska at the top of the 1994 rankings when surviving a close call against lightly-regarded Indiana. Paterno thus went about shamelessly padding the scores several times in subsequent years, embarrassingly so, tactlessly humiliating Michigan State HC George Perles in the final game of the latter’s career, then almost coming to blows with Rutgers’ Doug Graber for a long TD pass in the final moments vs. the Scarlet Knights in 1995.

We have documented various other Paterno peculiarities, including (especially so) his reluctance to gracefully step aside as the Nittany Lions’ coach. To the contrary, Paterno has been obstinate about his position for decades, even in recent years when retreating mostly to the background on a day-to-day basis, when assistants Tom Bradley (defense) and Galen Hall (offense) were effectively coaching the team. Paterno would reportedly still not consent to a successor plan in Happy Valley unless his son Jay, an offensive assistant, would be next-in-line.

There was also never a clear line of succession at Penn State, because so few of Paterno’s aides would ever leave his side to cut their head coaching teeth elsewhere. Only Dick Anderson, who gave it a go at Rutgers in the mid ’80s, ever attempted as much at another major program. Another of the many long-running peculiarities in Happy Valley.

But it was Paterno’s reaction to a downturn in Nittany Lion fortunes over a decade ago that continues to be overlooked by much of the media. Several sources have long indicated “Joe Pa” decided then to lower his recruiting standards and accept countless at-risk troublemakers. Paterno lowered the bar, alright. What followed was the emergence of Penn State as one of the nation’s premier “outlaw” programs, in every sense of the word, over the past decade.

While much of the media continued to promote the “Saint Joe” image, Paterno’s program spiraled out of control. In 2008, ESPN, in a rare bit of objectivity, focused upon Paterno’s Penn State in an “Outside the Lines” investigative report. The results spoke for themselves; according to the July 2008 ESPN study, 46 Nittany Lions faced 163 criminal charges since 2002, with 27 being convicted of or pleaded guilty to a combined 45 counts. And in 2007 alone, 17 players were charged with 72 crimes, with nine guilty pleas. Not coincidentally, Penn State began to win again consistently in the middle of the last decade.

For what it’s worth, Paterno scoffed at the story, predictably calling it a “witch hunt” instead, and many loyalists jumped to his defense, citing transgressions of others elsewhere. Yet no label ever stuck to Paterno other than “Saint Joe.”

Last March, Sports Illustrated conducted its own updated report on “Criminal Records in College Football” and found Penn State’s program ranked tied for fourth worst in the country in such a listing, with 16 players on Paterno’s roster having police records. That put Penn State well ahead of Florida State, Miami, Oklahoma, Oregon, and others on the shamed list.

Despite ESPN and SI’s reporting, the Paterno “Saint Joe” image somehow endured among the majority of the nation’s sporting press, but now the facade seems to be crumbling. We wonder if his reputation will be able to survive his last act of arrogance, a personal power play last week when announcing his pending retirement at season’s end, expecting that would preempt whatever the school’s Board of Trustees had in mind if it wanted to act more swiftly.

So much for being a loyal servant to the school he supposedly loved; until the end, Paterno was acting as if he were bigger than the school that employed him.

We also suspect that since it has now become politically "safe" to bash Paterno, the mainstream media might begin the piling-on process. Ironically, as we note above, Paterno has offered a wide target to potential critics for many years. And with plenty of available evidence to suggest Paterno was never the "saint" as portrayed by the media, it would be no surprise if some branches of the press begin to more deeply re-examine why its members bothered to canonize Paterno for so long in the first place.

Whatever becomes of the Sandusky case, it is fairly safe to assume that rather than act to safeguard any potential real victims in this sordid mess, Paterno apparently chose to protect his fiefdom over whatever might transpire in the future. A classic example of autocracy, acting as if normal rules of society do not apply. Paterno surely regrets those actions now.

And chalk up another win for Lord Acton.

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