It’s still Penn State, which means the decades of excellence can’t just disappear. But the Nittany Lions absorbed perhaps the biggest black eye in college-sports history when former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was found to be a child molester, including among some players.
Sandusky is in the early stages of a 30- to 60-year prison sentence, but the worse news was that Joe Paterno was implicated. St. Joe. A coach without so much as a blemish on his resume was now a de facto supporter of a child molester.
Paterno died in 2012, but the biggest shovel of dirt on his grave was the NCAA’s decision to strip Paterno of the 111 victories he earned from 1998 through 2011.
The scandal broke in November 2011, when Sandusky – who retired in 1999 but still had access to Penn State’s athletic facilities – was indicted on 52 counts of child molestation. Although the abuse may have begun in the 1970s, he was only charged for those incidents that occurred between 1994 and 2009. It was near the end of the 2011 season when Paterno, believing he had become a distraction, offered to retire at the end of the season. Instead, Penn State fired him immediately. He died of lung cancer two months later. It took the NCAA a little longer to invoke its punishment.
The following July, the Nittany Lions, who will host Army Saturday, were placed on five years probation; received a 4-year post-season ban; and Penn State’s 112 victories from 1998 through 2011 were wiped from the books, among other penalties. All but one of those victories came under Paterno, who had passed Alabama’s Bear Bryant as the all-time winningest college-football coach. The 111 forfeited games knocked Paterno off the perch, dropping him from first to 12th on the all-time victory list.
This past January the NCAA reversed its decision on stripping Paterno of his victories. But the school’s $60 million penalty and reduction of scholarships remained. The school’s 4-year ban participating in bowl games ends after this season.
Paterno allegedly was made aware of Sandusky’s crimes in 2001, and as a state employee Paterno was legally bound to report any suspected child abuse. He didn’t. A subsequent investigation by former FBI director Louis Freeh revealed that Paterno was one of four – including university president Graham Spanier – who knew of Sandusky’s acts. Spanier resigned before being fired.
Since then – despite the return of his victories – Paterno’s legacy has been irrevocably smeared. A statue of Paterno that stood in front of Penn State’s Beaver Stadium has been removed. In 2010, the Big Ten Conference championship trophy, which shared the name of Paterno and Amos Alonzo Stagg, one of football’s early innovators, saw Paterno’s name removed.
In 2010, the Maxwell Football Club established the Joseph V. Paterno Award, to be awarded annually to the college-football coach “who has made a positive impact on his university, his players and his community.” When the scandal broke a year later the club discontinued the award. Paterno was also nominated for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor. Support for that, too, disappeared.
Penn State is still in what might be characterized as recovery mode. The Nittany Lions have won three of four games this season. Recruiting, once performed with the ease of an extra point, has become a chore. Its 7-6 record last season was its worse since a similar finish in 2010. After 46 years of Paterno – including two national championships and 37 bowl appearances — the Nittany Lions have had three head coaches since his departure. Current coach James Franklin is in his second season.
And although Paterno’s victories have been returned, his beatification has been rescinded, with likely no chance of recovery. St. Joe? Sadly, not anymore.