Joe Paterno and Penn State will be an oft-mentioned topic at media days throughout college football over the next two weeks, and coaches figure to fall into two camps: Those who want to avoid the subject and those who will have largely positive responses.
The first day of SEC Media Days offered some of both.
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Missouri coach Gary Pinkel counted Paterno, who died in January, as a friend and wants the good he did to be recalled.
“It’s such a tragedy,” Pinkel said to a small group of reporters. “Joe Paterno is a friend. I got to know him professionally. You can’t take away the greatness of this man. He was a great man. And however you analyze this, you can’t erase all that this guy has done. You can’t do that. Nobody can do that.”
But that’s happened over the past few days in the wake of the report authored by former FBI director Louis Freeh on Penn State and the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse case. Paterno was identified as one of four administrators who covered up Sandusky’s predatory nature. Sandusky, a former Penn State defensive coordinator, was convicted last month of sexually abusing 10 boys over a 15-year period.
Pinkel said, “I don’t read a lot about it, but there’s certainly lessons to be learned by everybody.”
Those apparently more informed, like NCAA president Mark Emmert and SEC commissioner Mike Slive, expressed little public sympathy.
In a PBS interview on Monday, Emmert said that he had “never seen anything as egregious as this in terms of just overall conduct and behavior inside a university and hope never to see it again.”
The NCAA is investigating to determine if Penn State lacked institutional control. Emmert said the process will be deliberate but doesn’t want to take “anything off the table” in terms of punishing if the school is found in violation. Some have suggested the football program be shut down.
A NCAA “death penalty” hasn’t happened since the SMU football program was shut down in the 1980s because of extra benefit violations. In 2004, Baylor’s basketball program was prohibited from playing nonconference games in the wake of the Dave Bliss scandal.
Slive didn’t specifically mention Paterno and Penn State in his state-of-the-conference address to open SEC Media Days, but there was no mistaking the target of his warnings.
“Last week’s headlines remind us that we must be every vigilant on issues of integrity and that our primary mission is to educate and protect young people,” Slive said. “No one program, no one person, no matter how popular, no matter how successful, can be allowed to derail the soul of an institution.”
Coaches took a different view of Paterno’s case.
“I’m sure he would maybe, if he did it over again, he’d follow up a few things,” Pinkel said. “But don’t take away all this guy did, and sit around blaming him for all this.”
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier was a little more reserved when asked to comment on Paterno.
“Well, obviously it’s a terrible mess, terrible mess,” Spurrier said. “The only thing I would say about Coach Paterno, when he coached, he did everything right. His teams played fair, fundamentally sound. He was always revered for doing the right things.
“I don’t want to get into the other side of a terrible, terrible situation.”
Others weren’t reluctant to speak up on Tuesday. Brown University, Paterno’s alma mater, said it was taking his name off an annual athletic award. A Penn State student group that manages a rallying spot to the football games changed the spot’s name from “Paternoville” to “Nittanyville.”
Flying over State College was a small airplane with a banner that read “take down the statue or we will,” referring to the Paterno statue that stands outside of Beaver Stadium.
In an interview with WJAC-TV, Penn State president Rodney Erickson said the school is looking into the future of the statue.
“We’re obviously hearing from members of the Penn State community and far beyond,” Erickson said. “Obviously, Joe Paterno was a legend. He had a very important influence on the university for many years, so we need to look at it in a comprehensive kind of fashion, the things that Coach Paterno did that were supportive of our educational efforts and other things.
“Obviously, as the Freeh report indicates, there were clearly very bad judgments that were made along the way with respect to the Sandusky matter that will forever be a mark against Joe’s contributions.”