Should JoePa statue have ever been raised at all?
Joe Paterno was driven by golf cart to his preseason news conference last August, having been injured in a practice collision with one of his players only days before. (The injuries were to Paterno’s right arm and hip, or his shoulder and pelvis; it was never quite clear. He himself said nothing had been broken, that he had merely sustained “a couple cracks” and would soldier on).
The cart was brought to a halt in a corner of Holuba Hall, Penn State’s indoor practice facility, before dozens of reporters seated on risers. Then, a microphone was put in place and the questions came. Paterno was in “a lot of pain,” he said, but planned to coach the season opener against Indiana State from the sideline. It wasn’t like he had never been run over before, after all. (In actuality, his injuries bothered him so much last fall that he was unable to spend a full game on the sideline – but no matter).
It was at that point that one of the gentlemen in the assembled multitude – more fan than journalist – took the conversation in an entirely different direction.
“Coach, college football wishes you would continue to coach for as long as you can,” the guy began, “because you bring integrity to the game, and you have.”
Reporters squirmed. Paterno, still seated in the golf cart, bowed his head. But the guy was undaunted, saying something about “the embarrassment that Ohio State brought on the Big Ten and college football” – a reference to some Buckeyes exchanging memorabilia for tattoos and other benefits – and “the pressures that are on collegiate athletes, as well as coaches.”
The guy eventually lurched to a conclusion, his point being that in his view, Paterno and Penn State were above reproach.
“That’s very complimentary, and I hope you’re right,” Paterno said. “I’ve been very reluctant to point fingers at anybody, but goodness gracious, you don’t know.”
Why, something could happen far beyond his jurisdiction, he said. One of his players’ hometown friends could want to “stick his two cents in the football program.” He could try to steer a recruit the Nittany Lions’ way, by one means or another, without anyone in Happy Valley being the wiser.
Paterno added that there are other issues, too.
“I blame a lot of the problems we have, without really knowing what I’m talking about, on the fact that we have maybe too many rules and No. 2, the administrations are the first ones to kind of make the coach the scapegoat,” he said. “I think the universities have a tremendous responsibility to make sure the coach is doing it the way they want the program run. When a president of an institution says that, ‘We’re embarrassed, we’re going to fire this guy,’ or ‘I can’t fire that guy because he’s a football coach,’ where are we?”
He closed by saying that he wanted to remain in coaching not because it was “an ego trip” but because he wanted to have “a good, solid program.”
“I want to be able to get up in the morning and know I’ve done the best I can,” he said. “We’re doing what’s supposed to be done and we’ll go from there.”
The point here is that Paterno never quite bought into his own legend – perhaps for reasons that have been brought to light, devastatingly, by the Jerry Sandusky trial and the Freeh Report, but just as likely because the late coach was well aware nobody could ever be what he was purported to be.
And if he wasn’t comfortable with that, none of us should have been, either. That means everybody – media, fans, whomever. As with every public figure, we should not have accepted everything at face value. We should have subjected him to more scrutiny, more skepticism.
Hard to do when he’s out there in the wilds of Central Pennsylvania, winning games and graduating kids. And indeed, every profile ever done of Paterno seemed to read the same: He quotes Robert Browning! He lives in a little rancher! He walks to work! His number’s in the phone book!
Now a great many of the things Paterno built have come crashing down, with more likely to follow; the NCAA is going to lower the boom on Penn State Monday morning (see story)
Then there’s the statue of Paterno, which until Sunday morning stood alongside Beaver Stadium (see story)
. It’s moot to say that the thing, erected in November 2001, should have been removed. The better question is whether it should have ever been raised in the first place.
Seems like a risky thing to do, when the subject is still alive and some chapters have yet to be written. Of course, nobody looked at it that way. This was Joe Paterno, after all.
Kay Kustanbauter, former executive director of the Nittany Lion Club, said in an interview last June that she was the “point person” in the completion of the statue. The school was looking for a way to honor Paterno when he won his 324th game to surpass the late Bear Bryant as the winningest coach in major-college history – as he would in October 2001 – and after Kustanbauter brainstormed with Tim Curley, the since-disgraced athletic director, and former sports information director Budd Thalman, the idea took shape.
What emerged was a 7-foot, 900-pound bronze rendering of Paterno, running onto the field before a game with his right index finger raised.
Seems hollow now.
But again, Paterno – to whom the statue was a surprise – could not have been comfortable with it, on any number of levels. This was, after all, a man who often told his players the following: “Publicity is like poison. It doesn’t hurt unless you swallow it.”
The same goes for myth-making. Too bad so many of us swallowed every aspect of that, long ago.Gordie Jones covered Penn State from 1984-2003 for the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal.