On this Penn State story, I have read words Tolstoi might have written and I have read words I have never said out loud.
I have read those words in polemics from Buzz Bissinger at The Daily Beast and Charles P. Pierce at Grantland.com. I have read Joe Posnanski, the Sports Illustrated star who went to Happy Valley to write a book but not this one. I have read Gregg Doyel of CBSSports.com, the columnist at turns angry and understanding, and I have read Sara Ganim, the Harrisburg Patriot-News crime reporter whose old-school working of sources identified Jerry Sandusky seven months ago. Then, this month, Ganim, 24 years old, put us with the anguished mothers of two men who once were young boys and innocent.
Reading a lot, I also read a dead man’s column.
It began: “Only a few football coaches achieve the status of legend in their lifetimes. Knute Rockne, Howard Jones, Fielding Yost, Amos Alonzo Stagg, Bear Bryant, Vince Lombardi. And, of course, Joe Paterno.”
Murray’s portrait of Paterno was familiar. He gave us Joe Pa as the thinking man’s coach, the literature major who considered law as a career, the teacher, philanthropist, humanitarian, wit, an intellect so committed to the academy that he turned away from the temptations of professional football. As old men will – Murray was 77, Paterno 71 – they spoke of things past and things new, among them the way college football was no longer Frank Merriwell’s game.
Paterno told Murray, “Before you get down to game plans, you have to call the squad together to meet with agents and lawyers. You have to discuss drugs and alcohol, date rape, sexual harassment, things that have nothing to do with football. Or maybe everything to do. Girls are more aggressive today. So are agents. They all see that pot of gold, the professional contract, in the distance. It’s hard to keep your feet. You have all these things to get out of the way before you can teach a line about football. I make more money than I should, but it’s the future of the game I worry about.”
Murray talked about “yeah-but” coaches, as in this dialogue:
“Coach, he raped four nurses!”
“Yeah, but he runs the 40 in 4.3!”
Then he asked if Paterno would recruit a “yeah-but” rogue who could take Penn State to the Rose Bowl.
The coach shook his head no. “You know it’s going to be trouble down the line,” Paterno said. “You don’t need that.”
Those Paterno words – “trouble down the line” – now ring of prophecy. The first week of November 2011, a grand jury bombshell turned Happy Valley sad. We may be years away from an understanding of what happened there and why it happened. Juries will hear the stories and they will return verdicts and the verdicts will add to the confusion. The only certainty is that Penn State has created a Rubik’s cube of morality and legality with pieces that can be arranged a thousand ways.
Paterno’s words – “trouble down the line” – may have nothing to do with today’s miseries and they may have everything to do with today’s miseries. In any case, they stand as foreshadowing of Paterno’s troubles today. There is evidence suggesting that Penn State became a “yeah-but” place. The coach seems to have taken a rogue here, a pirate there, gambling that a miscreant would behave. From 2002 through 2008, according to ESPN reporter Paula Levigne’s analysis of police reports and court records, 46 Penn State football players were arrested on 163 charges. Of those players, 27 were convicted or pled guilty on 45 criminal counts. Penn State cultists may believe it was coincidence that those crimes occurred in a decade that began with Paterno’s teams posting losing records in four of five seasons. Skeptics see a “yeah-but” connection.
Of today’s troubles, Paterno has said that in hindsight he wishes he had done more. Loyalists presume he meant “more” to save the children. Skeptics reckon it was “more” to save himself – but he was too late by years for that. There is systemic rot at Penn State. The signs were first obvious in ESPN’s study of the football team’s rap sheet. The rot was there when the Penn State board of trustees – ultimate guardians of the university’s welfare – could not persuade Paterno to retire in 2004 and did not have the nerve to fire him. Every time the old man got run over on the sidelines and was forced to take his broken body upstairs on game days lest he be run over again, he walked with a cane, a palpable symbol of the rot.
The first week of September this year, in a time so long ago we barely knew Jerry Sandusky, a Pulitzer Prize winner wrote that Joe Pa should just go away. Bissinger won his Pulitzer reporting on Philadelphia politics. On the more important issue to Pennsylvanians, Bissinger wrote of Paterno: “The whole last decade had not been very kind to the old man. He had had four losing seasons. That’s because he was an old man. He had lost the grace. He would not recapture it.”
Trouble down the line is what Paterno had said to Jim Murray. Sadly if inevitably, the trouble was of his own making. A student of classic literature – the young Joe Paterno maybe – would recognize the trouble as signs of hubris, a great man destroyed by pride, ambition, and arrogance, the very forces that created him. Bissinger told me this week, “In 2004, when the board wanted him to retire, he said, ‘Forget it, I’m Joe Paterno, I’m the most powerful man in Pennsylvania.’ Even at the end, even with this horror, if they hadn’t fired him, he’d have kept coaching until he died.”
I read my friend Posnanski’s stumbling admission of confusion, his book on Paterno no longer what he thought it would be, and I wished he had said: Whatever the truth is, the book is more important now than ever and I’ll write the hell out of it. I read Bissinger and I read Pierce and I loved every icy, furious word. Pierce’s only regret is that he couldn’t get to State College. “Woody Allen said 80 percent of life is showing up,” Pierce told me, “and 100 percent of journalism is showing up.” Being there, maybe, he might have found Mike McQueary talkative. Being there, he could go to Sandusky’s hometown, as ESPN’s Liz Merrill did, and write about a time a half-century ago when Sandusky was a little boy and innocent. I read a half-dozen Doyel columns, written in anger from ground zero at State College, especially on the night of melees after Paterno’s firing. And then I read the thing a columnist does when he is good and honest. The day after some students ran wild, Doyel went to a journalism class and listened to other students who made sense.
One, Ryan Van Wagner, “didn’t ask me; dared me,” Doyel wrote, “to find a better way to gauge the Penn State reaction to this tragedy: Ignore the lowest common denominator, Ryan said. Don’t lean on the people tipping media trucks. Ask someone rational. We exist. Exactly, Zach Dugan said. Ask a student walking across campus. Pick somebody. Anybody. ‘Don’t go to the deranged people to see how Penn State students feel,’ Ryan said. ‘That’s not me, and that’s not us. We’re as heartbroken as anyone.’
“Actually, I’m not sure it was Ryan who said that. It could have been Zach. It could have been Rebecca or Sarah or someone else inside Room 206. Whoever it was, his identity is a blur at this point — and maybe that’s for the best. Whoever it was, he wasn’t speaking just for himself. He was speaking for another side of Penn State, a mostly ignored side. He was speaking for the best of Penn State.”
From State College, during his week of deadline writing, Doyel sent me an email: “Being here changed me, in two ways that never would have happened from afar. From afar, I never would have changed. I would have thought what I thought, wrote it, and felt strong about it. Unchanged. What could change me from my home office in Cincinnati?”
“But being here changed me. At first it made me even angrier at Paterno, Penn State and the fans. I came here angry, and only got angrier as I saw the rally on Paterno’s lawn, the cold way Penn State people canceled his weekly press conference 45 minutes before it was to start, as if they honestly had no idea how BAD this story was until they saw 200 media members standing outside, waiting to get in. And then the riot after Paterno was fired. I was furious, and the tone of my writing changed from my normal mode of hot-headed screaming into something closer to cold seething. And when I’m seething, coldly, I’m close to losing it.”
Then Doyel went to that class. “And I was changed again, because I was confronted with realities that others can’t see from wherever they were. And that changed me. And walking around the tailgating lots, listening to Penn State fans apologizing to Nebraska fans — just apologizing for being Penn State, I guess — was heart-melting. This story could have been written from anywhere. But the most fair perspective was here in State College.”
I read a lot on this story, all of it dark, most of it dead certain of Jerry Sandusky’s guilt, and if we needed another sign of Joe Paterno’s complicity, he provided it this summer by transferring ownership of his house to his wife for $1. The coach seemed to be guarding against the possibility of losing the house in any lawsuit brought against him — this long before the grand jury’s findings were made public. Joe Pa knew the worst of the “yeah-but” troubles were about to arrive.
Dave Kindred’s latest book, “Morning Miracle,” is an inside-the-newsroom account of two years in the life of The Washington Post. Now a contributing writer at Golf Digest, Kindred is a Red Smith Award winner and member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.