"The Betrayal of Joe Paterno" Chapter Five: The Firing


On Wednesday November 9th, 2011 Joe Paterno awoke as the head football coach at Penn State as he had for each of the previous 16,747 days. ESPN was now in a full-court press to force his ouster before that Saturday’s game with Nebraska (to be carried, not coincidentally, by ESPN) and the New York Times was reporting (no doubt via their “source” John Surma)  that the Penn State Board of Trustees was planning his departure.

That morning, the Paterno camp, now slowly realizing that they weren’t in “Kansas” anymore, finally hired a PR person out of Washington, DC named Dan McGinn. It is not known (at least not by me) who actually wrote the statement put out in Joe Paterno’s name that day, but it was obvious that someone had chosen a far more aggressive strategy than the chaotic non-response of the previous two days.

It was a statement which, in a rational world should have been nearly perfect (as ideal as a written statement could be, considering it obviously could never be nearly as powerful as answering questions live and in-person). In the friendly media environment which had existed for Joe Paterno over most of the previous 40 years, it would have been received with nearly universal praise.

However, like an elderly Merlin, Paterno’s magic touch had suddenly left him. The media, as if having woken from a decades long spell, was now determined to make up for what they now perceived as having gone too easy on him for far too long (it also didn’t help Paterno that he never had a great relationship personally with the media and that he was a “goody two-shoes” conservative who liberals in the media would love to prove was a fraud all along).

From the media’s perspective, the key portion of the statement read: “I have decided to announce my retirement effective at the end of this season. At this moment the Board of Trustees should not spend a single minute discussing my status. They have far more important matters to address. I want to make this as easy for them as I possibly can. This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”

Instead of seeing his retirement as an act of concession, the media spun it as Paterno’s last desperate attempt to dictate his own terms (Paterno’s plan to retire at the end of the 2011 season had already been known within the administration, though John Surma is said to have questioned whether Paterno could be trusted to follow through on that promise).

Rather than viewing his comments about the Board of Trustees as a proper declaration of the scandal being more important than football, they decided that this was Paterno thumbing his nose at his bosses (incredibly, even several board members friendly to Paterno have said that this “insult” was the straw that broke the camel’s back).

And somehow, instead of praising him being the first (and to this date, still only) major figure to take any responsibility for what happened, they scandalously left off the “hindsight” part and made it look as if he was actually admitting guilt.

That day, Paterno told his team that he was retiring at the end of the season and then went to what would be his final practice after 61 years of coaching football at Penn State. Later that night, the Board of Trustees held a hastily scheduled press conference in which it was announced that Graham Spanier had “resigned” as president of the university, and that Joe Paterno was no longer the head football coach, effective immediately.

As shocking as that result was, the story of how that decision was reached and communicated is probably even more appalling. 

It has been widely reported that Governor Corbett (who just happened to schedule an extremely rare visit to State College just before the Sandusky indictments came down so he could be in town for the scheduled board meetings before the Nebraska game) urged the Board of Trustees to “remember the ten-year-old boy” and fire Joe Paterno. There is a dispute over whether Corbett also referenced the “shower,” but it was obvious to whom he was referring (though, importantly and bizarrely, Corbett later denied referencing the “ten-year-old boy” even though he had clearly admitted doing so on camera, which was a strong sign to me that he had learned in the interim that there was a significant problem with the real story of the “ten-year-old boy”).

It was universally accepted that the ensuing “vote” to fire Paterno was unanimous. However, based on what I can tell, it doesn’t appear that an actual “vote” was ever even taken.

Long-time board member Al Clemens told me that he was on the conference call via a cell phone at an airport and doesn’t think that he ever even took part in a “vote.” After barely even any discussion of the matter, he says that the motion to fire Paterno was put on the table and, since no one verbalized an objection to it, the proposition was considered “passed.” Clemens wasn’t even under the impression at the time that they had fired Paterno and instead thought that they had just agreed to keep him off the sidelines for the remainder of the year. He told me that if he knew all the facts then that he knows now that he never would have stayed silent on that phone call. He is also still upset that some board members had much more advanced notice/information about what was going on than others like he did.

Of all the countless acts of extreme stupidity and cowardice that have been a part of this incredibly sad story, the moment of the Paterno firing really stands out for special condemnation.

Forget for an instant that there is a very good chance that Joe Paterno did nothing remotely wrong here. The notion that 32 people (all of whom knew him, many of them extremely well) could be on that conference call and not one of them even say a word in response to the proposal to fire him is probably the most stupefying act of human weakness that I can immediately recall.

These were all highly educated and successful people. Most of them had already made their way in the world. Some were untouchable financially or professionally.  A few had extensive legal backgrounds. And yet somehow not even one of them found the “courage” to even ask, “Does anyone think we ought to at least ask Joe what the heck happened before we do this based on presumptions made because of a 23-page, inherently one-sided, grand jury presentment which doesn’t even charge Joe with a crime?”

Maybe even more amazing is that, regardless of what the impact would be on Paterno himself, not one of the board members seemingly grasped the full implications of what they were doing to their university as a whole.

Familiarity often breeds contempt and so over 50 years as head coach Paterno himself had lost enormous personal capital with members of the board (for instance, in addition to having offended the Surmas, Paterno coached four members of the Suhey family, but it apparently only took one of them to feel snubbed by the coach for trustee Paul Suhey to turn on him). But regardless of how the trustees felt personally about Paterno and whether he had hung on way too long to the job, a remotely rational look at the situation would have made it obvious that firing him at that moment was the very worst thing for the school to do for its own self-interest.

While it seems pretty obvious that the board foolishly thought that by firing Paterno they were somehow separating themselves from the story and “moving on,” the reality is that what they were really doing is branding the Sandusky scandal, for all time, a “Penn State Scandal.” After all, they fired the great Joe Paterno and, effectively, the school president over this. That meant that they, and by extension, the school itself had to be “guilty” (this “self verdict” would of course also be devastating to any chance of Paterno ever getting a fair hearing, especially when it was assumed by many that the board had “inside info” on what really happened, even though John Surma admitted at his infamous press conference that they did not).

In the face of overt terroristic threats by the media, essentially what the Penn State Board of Trustees decided to do was something like this: condemn to death the face of their school without the hint of due process, inform him of their decision by cell phone, and then order his assassination via a circular firing squad made up of horrendous shooters. All of that was then followed by a tone-deaf press conference perfectly timed for maximum unrest to ensue in the aftermath of their breathtaking stupidity and cowardice.

For those who may say, “What else could they possibly have done?” I suggest that under this kind of thinking we would all be speaking German or Japanese right now because this country certainly would never have won World War II if such spinelessness had dictated our response then to tyranny and injustice.

Sure, it would it have been difficult to stand up and tell the media, “Sorry, this is not a lynch mob. We believe in due process and we deem that after 61 years this man deserves some benefit of that doubt. We realize that this may mean that there are some uncomfortable moments in the coming weeks, but we think that when all the facts are known that this view will be vindicated.” But it wouldn’t have been that tough. Heck, after that Saturday’s last home football game of the year the media would have inevitably gotten tired and moved on, especially since Thanksgiving was right around the corner.

Instead, the next element of this “Perfect Storm” came in the form of the student reaction to Paterno’s firing. Had Paterno not been so popular with the student body, had the media coverage of the case not been so intense and unfair, or had the board not announced their decision at night, the ensuing “riot” which would dictate so much of the narrative into the future of this story would never have happened.

Heck, if it had not been for Paterno’s own admonishing the students to “go study,” the damage done that night probably would have been much worse (as an aside, does anyone really believe that Joe Paterno, a guilt-prone Catholic with enormous personal pride, would really have gone outside of his house waving and smiling at that moment if he thought that he had been justly fired for having protected a pedophile?).

I really believe that student “riot” may be the most misunderstood and underrated event in the entire “Perfect Storm.” It was portrayed by the media as somehow being about student anger over how their precious football team might be harmed by the decision and as an overt affront to the victims of sexual abuse everywhere. Among the worst examples of this politically correct, narrow-minded, knee-jerk reaction came, not surprisingly from ESPN. This transcript is from the anchoring that night of Steve Levy and Stuart Scott:

Levy: What strikes me as we look at all those pictures of the crowds that are gathering, all in support of Joe Paterno, I can’t help but think of the victims and their families who are watching and seeing that scene, and wondering what I’m sure they’re enduring. What are those people thinking in comparison to what’s happened to the victims and their family members? And that’s very disturbing and upsetting I would think to those watching.

Scott: Because of all the protesters and the supporters of Joe Paterno who are saying give him one more game. And let him coach to the end of the season. To them, this is about the Penn State program. The reality is this is not about football. What was allegedly done to young children, which really has nothing to do with football.

Levy: These are victims that will carry it throughout the rest of their lives. Joe Paterno will go on and be hailed as the greatest coach of all time. These victims will have to deal with what took place many years ago. And things were bordering to getting out of control tonight. No, they were out of control. There was total random madness out there

Like so much of how the media chose to interpret the events of this case, this takeaway was complete horse manure. But in this particular situation it was even more absurd than normal because the media itself was both the cause and the true focus of the “riot.”

I have been told, on the record, by multiple people who were there (including Penn State radio reporter Karisa Maxwell) that the primary reason that the initially peaceful downtown gathering of students turned destructive was that there were members of the media who were literally egging the students on. The students were practically dared to create some mayhem. Photographers were even mocking students by saying, “You call this a riot?”

It was hardly coincidental (except to most of the media) that the most dramatic act of actual demolition was when a local television news van was toppled over. The students, far from being blinded by their devotion to Paterno and Penn State football, were in reality extremely well-educated about the facts of the situation and were rightly outraged by the inaccurate and unfair media coverage. They directed much of their anger towards those they blamed for what had happened to Paterno, not out of irrational emotion, but rather out of a perfectly sane sense of indignation over what they perceived to be an unfair rush to judgment (based on how they have covered other far more destructive “demonstrations” around the world, had the media been in favor of their cause, there is little doubt that the student “riot” would have been presented in a dramatically different context).

This reality could not possibly have been better illustrated than in an utterly classic exchange which occurred on ESPN just before the “riot” got really started. An unnamed male student very calmly, passionately, succinctly, and accurately laid out all of the highlights of what should have been the Paterno defense (Scott Paterno would have done well to hire this kid to handle PR instead of Dan McGinn who managed to get his client fired in his first day on the job and yet somehow was able to remain employed through the present day). For me, as a political conservative, watching this was as cathartic as seeing Fox’s Charles Krauthammer somehow invade MSNBC’s coverage of the Republican Convention and set them all straight.

The student righteously declared, “First of all, our thoughts go to all the victims of this… JoePa alerted his supervisors… one of whom was the chief of all campus police…he did what he needed to do…Mike McQueary still has a job, he witnessed the actual event and he didn’t call the police. JoePa notified who he needed to notified and he got randomly fired over the phone after all he’s done for this campus. We study in a ten million dollar library he gave us. And he got fired over the phone after 62 years? Maybe he could have done more. He said he could have done more. What else do you want from him?”

But as great as the Penn Stater’s content was, the reaction of the two ESPN anchors when they returned to the studio was beyond priceless.

Steve Levy and Stuart Scott simply could not have been more stupefied than if God himself had made his presence known and expressed a side of this story which neither of them had clearly ever fully considered previously. The moment of palpable silence before they spoke was deafening. Levy, holding both palms up to the camera as if to protect his senses from the blast of truth he just endured, finally brought himself to say…

“A relatively well informed fan…ah… he had some of the facts correct and was smart enough to allude to the victims first.”

Levy never mentioned which facts the student didn’t have correct and then, after another pause, Scott simply responded by muttering, “It’s a… really interesting… dichotomy.”

As illustrated by this memorable interaction, it was obvious that the motivation and general tone of the student gathering was grossly mischaracterized in a way which created enormous consequences which are still being felt today.

Because the students were roundly castigated for having put football ahead of the victims of child abuse (forget the fact that football had nothing to do with their reaction and due process should have dictated that it was not yet known whether there were indeed victims of a crime), it created a dramatic chilling effect on all protests against what had been done to Paterno. Ironically, had no one on campus cared much for him and there had been no demonstration on his behalf, it would not have become instantaneously politically incorrect (to the absurd point of being equated with supporting child molestation) to even stand up and defend his basic right to due process.

From that moment on, the student body and the vast majority of the Penn State population were stripped of their fighting spirit. It was as if almost the entire community had been simultaneously emasculated and permanently chastened. They were now more than ripe to be manipulated by the “move on” philosophy which would soon be instituted by the very university elites whose cowardice and stupidity caused the problem to begin with (this was illustrated perfectly when Penn Staters generally refused to scream bloody murder when, just weeks later, it was revealed that Syracuse’s basketball team had a current assistant coach who was fired for molesting ball boys from the program itself and that ESPN had spiked evidence of his crimes for years, or when Notre Dame played in the BCS title game the following year with an unnamed player whose alleged rape of a girl caused her to kill herself).   

The “Perfect Storm” continued after Penn State inevitably lost that game to Nebraska when, the following Monday, Joe Paterno was apparently diagnosed with a very serious cancer. This obviously changed his mental outlook and priorities, while also further diminishing his physical ability to fight back. By the time he finally did what would be his only post-firing interview (with Sally Jenkins, a huge mistake which had the fingerprints of Dan McGinn all over it), he was obviously no where near full strength and his performance was not nearly what it would have been just a couple of months earlier.

Less than two weeks later, Joe Paterno would die at the age of 85.

In some ways, his death lulled his supporters (including myself) into a false sense of security that somehow this injustice might not have all that much lasting impact. After all, he received the public farewell he deserved and, in a strange way, became a sympathetic figure even to his critics because it was so evident to most people that the Sandusky scandal had effectively killed him.

Interestingly, Tim Curley, who would soon be accused by Louis Freeh of taking part in a cover-up led by Paterno, released a statement praising Joe for his “honor and integrity,” which would be a particularly odd thing to say about a guy who destroyed your life by forcing you to take part in a cover-up (It is important to note that, many, including myself, have wondered why Curley has never come out himself and exonerated Paterno. It is easy to forget that it was Paterno’s testimony which made the perjury charges against Curley even possible, and that there was an extended period after Paterno’s death when it appeared that there was no immediate need to take a legal risk in defending him because it seemed as if the worst was over.)

Paterno’s memorial service even provided an extremely rare moment for the Penn State community to collectively and temporarily find its lost testicles when Nike founder and huge Paterno fan Phil Knight finally expressed the message that many had been far too afraid to voice. He said that Paterno was his hero who never let him down and he dramatically defended his actions in the Sandusky matter while criticizing the Penn State Board of Trustees.

He received a thunderous standing ovation and it was obvious that he had awakened a silent majority which just realized that they were not the “crazy” ones, and that they were not alone (NFL Hall of Famer Franco Harris showing up at Penn State town hall meetings and expressing very similar sentiments also had a huge impact in this realm).

Here, once again, Paterno’s popularity worked against his own interest and, ultimately, his legacy. If he had not been so loved and admired by so many, then the Penn State Board of Trustees would not have received so much backlash for what they did to him. And if the board had not been so insecure about their vulnerability on this issue, they never would have hired Louis Freeh with the mandate to provide for them some belated justification for the firing.