Buchan: Paterno's loyalty clouded his better judgment

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WALLA WALLA - Joe Paterno's fall from grace at Penn State University was as tragic as any Shakespearian play.

And as puzzling as an Alfred Hitchcock mystery movie.

In 1978, Paterno visited Walla Walla and was the guest speaker at the second annual Blue Mountain Sports Awards. By then he had already completed his 12th season as Penn State's head football coach and had guided the Nittany Lions to two undefeated seasons, an .824 winning percentage and 10 bowl games, including a 42-30 victory over Arizona State in the most recent Fiesta Bowl.

That was, of course, just the beginning of a legendary coaching journey that would span 46 seasons before Paterno was brought down in the aftermath of an ugly child sex abuse scandal that shocked college football from one coast to the other and ultimately decimated Penn State's once-proud program.

As a young Union-Bulletin sports reporter, I covered the Blue Mountain Sports Awards that night in 1978 at the Walla Walla Elks Lodge. And my wife Margaret and I had the opportunity to spend more than a few minutes visiting with Paterno before he spoke.

We found the coach approachable, engaging and unpretentious. Of all the sports personalities I've met during my 44 years at the U-B, Paterno is near the top of the list.

Tom Baffney, who was the president of the Walla Walla Booster Club back then and one of the sports awards organizers, enjoyed a similar experience.

"Talking to him was like talking to your good old Italian uncle," Baffney remembered. "And the talk he gave that night was just outstanding. I wanted to stand up and say, ‘Give me a helmet and some pads because I'm following you.' It was very impressive."

So how could what happened happen?

Jerry Sandusky, one of Paterno's longtime assistant coaches, was arrested in November of 2011 and charged with 40 counts of child sexual abuse that occurred between 1994 and 2009, including allegations of incidents on the Penn State campus.

A grand jury investigation concluded that Paterno had become aware of Sandusky's despicable actions but didn't act upon them. Although the head coach wasn't found guilty of violating any laws, he was chastised publicly for a lack of moral conviction.

And by the time Sandusky was tried in June, found guilty of 45 of 48 counts of child sex abuse and sentenced to 442 years in prison, Paterno had been fired by the university prior to the end of the 2011 football season and subsequently died two months later.

The official cause of death was complications from lung cancer. But many of the Penn State faithful who stood with their coach until the end will tell you he died of a broken heart.

After Paterno's death, an independent Penn State Board of Trustees investigation, led by former FBI director Louis Freeh, determined that Paterno and others had "failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade" and that Paterno had lied to the grand jury on at least two occasions.

The question is why? And the only conceivable answer is blind loyalty.

Not to Sandusky, that I'm sure of, but to the football program Paterno built and to the university that was his life.

"When you think of all the things he did for students at Penn State, all the money he contributed, he is the guy they say who built that university to what it is today," Baffney said. "To see what has transpired is very disappointing. It makes you sick."

When Paterno arrived at State College in 1966, he introduced the Grand Experiment as an endeavor to meld athletics and academics in a collegiate environment. As a result, Penn State players graduated at a rate of 78 percent compared to 67 percent for NCAA Division I schools overall, according to a 2008 NCAA Graduation Rates Report.

Paterno was also renowned for his charitable contributions to academics at Penn State. He and his wife Sue contributed more than $4 million toward various departments and helped raise $13.5 million in funds for the 1997 Pattee Library expansion which the university named in his honor.

But somewhere along the way, Paterno lost his compass

His loyalty to the university as a whole and to the football program in particular - that circle the wagons mentality that is not uncommon in collegiate athletics - surely clouded his better judgment.

And as a result, Paterno's legacy has been forever stained and the Penn State football program has been saddled with sanctions from which it will never recover.

Perhaps the greatest hurt of all came just one week ago when Penn State officials removed Paterno's 7-foot, 900-pound statue from the pedestal where it had stood outside Beaver Stadium since 2001. Rodney Erickson, the school's new president, said the statue had become "a source of division and an obstacle to healing."

Mike Levens, who has played and coached football in Walla Walla all of his life, is saddened at what has happened to Paterno's image. And he's disturbed by the hard-line sanctions leveled against the football program.

"This is a tough one," the former Walla Walla Community College coach said. "Because (Paterno) did so many good things for so many years. It's a shame this has happened, and there's no excuse for it. His motivation might have been to take care of things in house, but that was absolutely the wrong thing to do.

"But the punishment they have dealt out seems to be extreme to me," Levens added. "The kids who are there playing football now are the ones who are being punished for what some adults did a long time ago. The people who didn't do the right thing got fired. And they should have gotten fired, maybe prosecuted, because they were in a position in education where they needed to be held responsible.

"But I don't think this is a football mentality thing in any way, shape or form."

Certainly Sandusky's evil actions had nothing to do with football. The child sex abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic Church just a few years ago is all the proof you need that there are monsters in all walks of life.

Levens was also at the sports awards banquet in 1978. And when it was over, he scavenged Paterno's name placard from the head table and had the coach sign it. It has held a place of honor in his office ever since.

"It's still there, and I don't think I'll be taking it down," Levens said. "And I don't think they're going to be tearing down the library at Penn State either."

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