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The most powerful people in sports: Joe Paterno and the cult of the college coach

A statue of Joe Paterno stands on the Penn State campus
user audreyjm529
A statue of Joe Paterno stands on the Penn State campus

College football coaches are far from the richest people in sports, but they could be the most powerful.  That might seem far-fetched, but not to the disciples of Bear Bryant, Woody Hayes, and Tom Osborne, among others, who rose to become almost spiritual leaders at their schools.   

At University of Michigan President James Duderstadt’s retirement banquet in 1996, he said being president wasn’t easy, but it came with some nice perks.  He even got to meet the man thousands of people considered God.  “No,” he said, “not Bo Schembechler, but the Dalai Lama.”

It got a laugh, but it also revealed how much presidents both fear and resent their coaches’ power, which can eclipse almost everything else on campus.  The best that schools can hope for is an enlightened despot – one who keeps things clean while winning ten games a year and beating their arch-rival.

Michigan has been lucky.  Its biggest icons – Fielding Yost, Fritz Crisler, and Bo Schembechler – were not just revered, they were restrained, refusing to resort to the dirty tactics their opponents used on and off the field.   

No one in the history of Penn State stamped the school more than Joe Paterno did.  He led the Nittany Lions to five perfect seasons, and did it the right way.  He didn’t spend a dollar to expand his humble ranch home, but he donated more than four million to expand the university. 

As Mark Twain said, Once a man earns a reputation for hard work, he can sleep until noon.  Likewise, Paterno’s image eventually took on a life of its own, one so powerful no mere mortal dared question it.

The acid test was his former top assistant, Jerry Sandusky, who received the first formal concern about his questionable conduct from a boy’s mother back in 1998.  This introduced a pattern of misconduct and complaint – with all the complaints systematically squelched by Paterno and Penn State.  Having seen Michigan’s coaches spend 16 hour days together – which is typical -- I find it impossible to believe Penn State’s coaches weren’t all too aware of Sandusky’s behavior, and the danger it posed. 

Finally, last week, the avalanche of evidence became too great even for Paterno’s image to withstand.  But it’s instructive to note this case was finally broken not by the people at Penn State, who had ample reason to take serious action more than a decade ago -- nor by conference or the NCAA, which have vested interests in keeping the good ship Paterno sailing along.  Even the writers who follow the team never reported a thing, because doing so would cost them their access, the lifeblood of any beat writer. 

When reporters asked Paterno’s fellow coaches what they would do in his situation, the tough-guy coaches turned wimpy surprisingly fast, refusing to criticize him even after the gory details began to emerge.  One claimed he couldn’t say what he would do without knowing the “policies and procedures” of Penn State.  How much do you need to understand to know instinctively the boy must be protected, and the man punished?

Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo, much to his credit, replied more directly.  He had his eleven-year old son on a team trip with him last week, and said the news from Penn State “sickens me.”  Here’s to one honest man. 

No surprise, then, that it was not any of the parties above which finally took concrete action, but the federal government.  If self-policing does not work at one of the most respected programs in the country, can it work anywhere? 

I have researched college football for almost two decades, and can say this is the ugliest chapter in the long history of one of our most beloved passions.  But until more people are willing to speak truth to power, no matter the cost, I’m afraid it won’t be our last.  

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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