OPINION: Paterno Goes Quietly

In the end, we can only wonder why we never heard the legendary Penn State football coach explain himself in his own words.

Wednesday morning, Penn State football coach Joe Paterno announced his retirement, effective at the end of the season. He did so via a prepared statement that was released though his newly hired public relations guy, Dan McGinn of TMG Strategies.

One of the most eloquent coaches in college football history speaking through a mouthpiece? That's all you need to know about this sad situation.

Paterno was fired later in the day.

That statement started off the right way, with Paterno talking about the alleged victims in the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal. Sandusky, the Nittany Lions' former defensive coordinator, has been charged with abuse of eight boys. Paterno — though not charged with any crime — has drawn criticism for not doing more to prevent or stop Sandusky's alleged actions.

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“I am absolutely devastated by the developments in this case,” the retirement statement said. “I grieve for the children and their families, and I pray for their comfort and relief.”

But later in the release, just after saying he intended to retire at season's end, the statement veered unexpectedly toward Penn State's Board of Trustees.

“At this moment the Board of Trustees should not spend a single minute discussing my status,” the statement said. “They have far more important matters to address. I want to make this as easy for them as I possibly can.”

The TMG Strategies' strategic approach apparently did not include subtlety.

Simply announcing Paterno would retire at the end of the season (as opposed to stepping down immediately, as many had demanded) would have been a shrewd preemptive strike by his camp against any board members pining for an early ouster.

Calling out the board by name was a direct challenge, especially in light of the fact that the previous night it issued its own release in which it promised to take “swift, decisive action” regarding the Sandusky situation.

You knew Paterno was in trouble when neither the Penn State athletic communications staff nor the university's public relations branch even bothered to post his retirement notice on their Web sites. Heck, neither even acknowledged it.

Wednesday night, the board voted unanimously to fire Paterno immediately. He has been replaced on an interim basis by defensive coordinator Tom Bradley.

Board vice chairman John Surma did not give specific details on why Paterno was fired. His best attempt?

"In our view, we thought a change was necessary,” he said.

But we all know why this went down the way it did.

By his own admission, Paterno had knowledge that a then-retired Sandusky was alleged to have done something inappropriate with a boy in the Penn State team shower in 2002. Sure, Paterno did the proper thing from a legal perspective by passing that information up the athletic department chain of command. But he failed from a moral standpoint by not speaking up when athletic director Tim Curley never took any significant action against Sandusky.

Allowing Paterno to continue coaching — if only for a few more games — would have been viewed as the board tacitly condoning his lack of action.

Don't get me wrong. I get the folks who wanted to see the old guy go out with a bit of dignity.

As troubling as his lack of judgment was, isn't there still something to be said for all of the good Paterno has done in his life? And I don't even mean on the field. He has donated untold millions of dollars to the university and various charities. He has driven home the importance of focusing on academics in a field where such an approach can be counterintuitive to athletic success. He has impacted hundreds (if not thousands) of young men in an extremely positive way.

In the end, however, I can't help thinking about Paterno's long-held contention that if he ever became a distraction to the program, he would step away.

But he didn't.

Even more troubling? Rather than speaking from the heart -- which he could have done at any point even as the university tried to muzzle him -- he went out letting others doing his talking for him.

A Sunday night release addressing the Sandusky mess came through his son. Wednesday morning's announcement came from the PR flack. Neither sounded anything like him.

And now the Joe Paterno era is over.

I only wish we would have had a chance to hear him argue his own case. Instead, the greatest Lion who ever lived went out like a lamb.


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