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Dark Days In Happy Valley

Since the time I was probably 7 or 8 years old, I knew I wanted to watch and write about sports for a living.

Penn State coach Joe Paterno was not permitted to answer questions today on the Jerry Sandusky scandal that has rocked the university.

That would have been the mid-1970s. I’d go to my grandparents’ house in eastern Ohio and would remember watching legendary Penn State games against the likes of Pittsburgh and West Virginia. Penn State was represented then and up until this past weekend as some kind of idyllic place.

When Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1993, the addition was welcomed and revered by conference schools and their fans all across the Midwest.

But I find myself today sitting here not writing about sports as much as I am about an American tragedy. And, at least in some ways, my perceptions of Penn State and its venerable coach Joe Paterno have been changed forever.

It was two months ago when I wrote this feature columnas an ode to Paterno and his 4-1/2 decades of excellence as the Nittany Lions’ head coach.

Paterno, who turns 85 on Dec. 21, should be enjoying the twilight of his decorated coaching career. His current team is 8-1 overall and enjoys a two-game lead in the Big Ten Leaders Division at 5-0. The 12th-ranked Nittany Lions are due to host No. 19 Nebraska on Saturday at Beaver Stadium. If the Nittany Lions can win any two of their last three games, they would win the division outright and would represent it in the first-ever Big Ten championship game on Dec. 3.

But the immediate and long-term future for Penn State are both in severe doubt after the indictment of former PSU defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky on no fewer than 40 counts relating to allegations of sexual abuse of minors. Sandusky, a former PSU player, was the school’s defensive coordinator for 23 years and was considered as a possible Paterno successor before his abrupt retirement in 1999. Sandusky is currently free on $100,000 bond.

At the same time, PSU athletic director Tim Curley and university vice president Gary Schultz have also stepped away from their jobs after their indictment for perjury charges after they apparently failed to properly report one alleged 2002 incident involving Sandusky’s assault on a 10-year-old boy at the PSU football facility.

Local, state and nationwide media outlets have started a feeding frenzy in State College as a result of these allegations.

In 1977, Sandusky started a charity organization, “The Second Mile,” to help underprivileged children. As it turns out, it is revealed in these shocking grand jury transcripts, that Sandusky met at least some of his alleged victims through his work at that charity.

Upon learning of Sandusky’s arrest this past weekend – an open weekend for the Nittany Lions – Paterno issued a press statement saying the allegations against Sandusky were “deeply troubling” and that “we were all fooled.”

As it turns out, the allegations against Sandusky should not have come as a shock to Paterno in any way, shape or form. According to those grand jury transcripts, Paterno was told of the 2002 assault by a PSU graduate assistant – believed to be former player and current assistant coach Mike McQueary – immediately after that GA had witnessed the assult at the football facility.

Paterno passed that information on to Curley and Schultz, who also questioned McQueary.

Now Paterno, who came to Penn State as an assistant in 1950 and became the head coach there in 1966, is regarded by many as the most powerful man in central Pennsylvania. He led the school to national championships in 1982 and 1986, attaining almost mythical status in the process.

During some lean seasons earlier this decade, he resisted apparent attempts by Curley and university president Graham Spanier to step aside. Paterno recovered his winning ways, taking Big Ten championships in 2005 and 2008 and quelling talk that he should go off into the sunset.

As he has stayed at Penn State, one milestone after another has fallen. On Oct. 29, he recorded his 409th career victory over Illinois. On a snowy day in State College, the Lions rallied late for the 10-7 win as Paterno watched from the press box. He has coached most of this season from there due to various health and injury issues. The win allowed him to move past Grambling legend Eddie Robinson and into first place on the NCAA Division I career wins list.

Paterno typically meets with the media each Tuesday to preview the upcoming game. But PSU officials abruptly canceled that presser, saying that now was not the time for the coach to address the legal issues. It was reported that it was Spanier’s office who made the call to muzzle the coach.

That set off a feeding frenzy as PSU fans, students and media members set about Paterno’s home. They got a brief word for him as he headed to the team’s late-afternoon practice.

“I know you guys have a lot of questions and I was hoping I was going to be able to answer them today, but we’ll try to do it soon,” Paterno said as he walked through a crowd of reporters and got in a car to go to practice. “We’ll do it as soon as we can. We can’t do it today.”

Yes, Coach, we have questions – a lot of them.

For starters, we’d like to know why McQueary – after allegedly witnessing a rape of a child – did not call the police. We’d like to know why Paterno didn’t make that call, either. Instead, he kicked the allegations up to Curley. It seems they were never reported to law enforcement officials. Were they kept secret because Paterno and/or Curley didn’t want any kind of negative publicity for their own little Camelot in the middle of the Nittany Mountains?

A reporter could ask Paterno, very matter-of-factly, whether he believes he could have saved a youngster from possibly being assaulted by simply calling the police. There is no good answer to that question.

"Why didn’t Joe Paterno didn’t do anything more than tell his athletic director?” ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit asked on-air this afternoon. “Why didn’t he tell the authorities? I understand legally that’s OK but morally don’t you have to go the next step."

Another thing Paterno needs to shed light on is the circumstances surrounding Sandusky’s sudden departure in 1999. Was Sandusky gently nudged aside because Paterno or somebody else was aware of his alleged proclivity for young boys?

At some point in all of this, Sandusky was allegedly told he could no longer bring boys to the PSU football facility. But nobody seemed to enforce this edict. Moreover, the Associated Press reported that Sandusky was seen on campus working out just last week. He still maintained parking privileges, had an office in a building across from the football facility and was still considered a professor emeritus in the physical education department.

An unconfirmed report said Sandusky even attended the Illinois game as a guest in the athletic department’s luxury suites. How is any of this possible if PSU officials had any inclination that he was a pedophile? How can any of them – including Paterno -- maintain their jobs?

Better yet, Spanier pledged his “unconditional support” for Curley and Schultz as they begin to fight their perjury charges. (As an aside, Curley’s attorney told media members today that prosecutors use perjury charges when they have nothing else to charge someone with. It is entirely possible they are trying to leverage them to help their case against Sandusky.)

Former PSU All-American and ESPN analyst Matt Millen spent several hours on-air this afternoon as this whole saga unfolded. He played for Paterno and Sandusky was his position coach. Millen, a former NFL general manager with the Detroit Lions, has served as a board member for Sandusky’s Second Mile charity.

It made for awkward television as Millen discussed the situation and even appeared choked up at times.

“If we can’t protect our kids, then we as a society are pathetic,” Millen said.

After news broke that Paterno’s press conference had been canceled, the New York Times came out with this report saying that PSU trustees were working behind the scenes on an exit strategy for Paterno. The article states that Paterno will be out within the next few days or weeks.

However, Paterno’s son, Scott, refuted the notion that Paterno – who is in the final year of his contract – has been asked to resign.

“No one has asked Joe to step down,” Scott Paterno told reporters outside his father’s house. “The status quo holds. Joe is the coach at Penn State and that’s all I say at this time. When there’s more to add I will.”

Late this afternoon – as Paterno was presumably at practice – there were Twitter reports that the PSU Board of Trustees were set to meet as soon as Wednesday and could discuss the fate of Spanier and Paterno at that time.

Earlier Tuesday, the Harrisburg Patriot-News had shared its opinion that both Spanier and Paterno need to go.

Going Forward and More Viewpoints

At the beginning of this column, we eluded to the fact that Penn State will host Nebraska in a critical Big Ten game on Saturday (noon, ESPN). The game could go a long way toward determining the winners of both Big Ten divisions.

In so many ways, your heart has to go out to Penn State’s seniors who just want to show up on Saturday, play their hearts out for their alma mater and give it their best shot to beat the Huskers and move toward wrapping up the divisional title.

But what they are likely to encounter instead is a circus atmosphere. Will some Penn State fans stay home as a protest of what their university leaders have done? Will there be child abuse advocates protesting the school outside the stadium? How can they be focused on the powerful Huskers when everything around them seems to be coming apart at the seams?

And this is just the home game, their last home game.

Imagine what they are likely to encounter the next two weeks as they visit boisterous road stadiums at Ohio State and Wisconsin – which each have divisional hopes of their own.

As one Pennsylvania media member put it on Tuesday, “This is like a natural disaster, except all of the damage is emotional scars.”

Bruce Hooley, a sports radio host at WKNR-AM (850) in Cleveland, opined that they should cancel Saturday’s game out of sensitivity for the victims. It would be an unprecedented move, especially given the ramifications in both Big Ten divisions.

“With this going on in their football program, it's not appropriate for 105K to show up and cheer for touchdowns. Just wrong,” Hooley Tweeted.

With Curley and Schultz out of the picture and Paterno and Spanier under fire, there seems to be a vacuum of leadership at Penn State. There are even reports that the Board of Trustees are split in how to handle the situation.

But it seems very clear that Penn State and its football program will be heading in a new direction very soon. It is possible they ask Paterno to stay home on Saturday. Or maybe they allow Paterno to finish the regular season or maybe even stay on through a bowl game. One way or another, he likely can count his remaining games as the Penn State coach on one hand.

Who will want to step into the void and try and restore pride to this program? Al Golden, a former PSU player and assistant, is wrapping his first year as the head coach at Miami (Fla.). He took that job, though, only to learn that Miami could face NCAA sanctions. If Golden could get out of that contract, he could be a ready made answer. After all, he performed a minor miracle at longtime loser Temple before heading to South Beach.

The Big Ten has named the championship trophy for the title game the Stagg-Paterno Trophy. It’s unclear whether that will remain. The conference said it had no comment about the situation, citing the ongoing investigation.

Ohio State, Penn State’s primary Big Ten rival, has spent a scandal-ridden year in the NCAA’s crosshairs after wrongdoing by former coach Jim Tressel. Luke Fickell is serving as Ohio State’s head coach this year as that university awaits word on any possible NCAA sanctions. Fickell was asked for his stance on the Penn State situation at his weekly press conference Tuesday afternoon.

“I don’t know,” Fickell said. “Obviously I’m not going to comment on a whole lot of Penn State stuff. He’s had an unbelievable career. The whole situation there, I have no idea. I haven’t read about it. All of that is probably just speculation anyway and it would be speculation if I commented on it.

“But it’s a great program, he’s a great man and I’ll just leave it at that.”

Illinois coach Ron Zook, speaking on the Big Ten teleconference, was asked for his take on the situation.

“Anybody who knows Coach Paterno knows he is a great person,” Zook said. “What he has done in college football is just phenomenal. He’s one of the top two or three coaches in the history of college football.

“I don’t know the situation and entirely what has happened. But you hate to see something like this happen to Coach Paterno.”

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