Momentous as those abrupt moves may have been, they were rendered mere footnotes on Wednesday night when the Penn State Board of Trustees announced that it had fired not only Spanier but also Joe Paterno. The notion was, in some ways, unfathomable. Here was the most successful coach in the history of college football—arguably the most unfireable person in all of sports—gone, and not of his own volition. What's more, the man known as much for his moral authority as for his record 409 wins was being shown the door over an ethical failure that even he conceded was a horrible lapse in judgment. "It is one of the great sorrows of my life," Paterno said in a written statement earlier in the day. "I wish I had done more."
Doing more at the time would have brought a raft of bad publicity; having done less will leave an ineradicable stain. "Penn State will never fully get its reputation back as the guys in the white hats," says Charles Yesalis, a retired Penn State health policy and sports science professor. "Part of that was smoke and mirrors." Adds Mary Gage, former director of the undergraduate fellowships office at Penn State, "It's amazing to think what one man can do to a whole heroic institution if the reaction is faulty."
For most of his more than six decades at Penn State, Joe Paterno would walk to work from his four-bedroom house on the fringe of campus, the kind of gesture—an authentic, unpretentious throwback—that endeared him to so many in Happy Valley and beyond. But the walk also afforded Paterno the opportunity to survey his empire. His home may have been astonishingly modest (current estimate: $415,000) for a man of his stature, but his regal trappings festooned the campus. There is the library that bears his name; the campus creamery that famously scoops Peachy Paterno ice cream; the health center he helped endow; assorted statues and murals; and the Lasch football facility, a fortress underwritten by friends of Paterno. He is even on the syllabus, COMM 497G—Joe Paterno: Communication & the Media. JoePa Class, the students called it.
That nickname, JoePa, while a play on words, also connoted a fatherly presence. His role in elevating Penn State's profile and its endowment—which barely existed when he began and now nears $2 billion—cannot be exaggerated. One story among many: Several years ago Paterno scoffed when he was asked to do a national Burger King commercial, only to reverse course when he realized how much money he could donate to the library from the royalties. Even those ambivalent toward Paterno appreciate his unmistakable contribution to the school. "There's an emphasis on athletics that necessarily results in a de-emphasis on everything else," says Penn State journalism professor Russell Frank. "But a lot of us owe our jobs to him, in a sense. He grew the university so much, and that's attributable to how high-profile the football program has been."
Outgoing, accessible (his home phone number is in the campus directory) and philanthropic, Paterno was the benevolent despot. But he was a despot nonetheless. Org chart be damned—unlike Schultz and Curley, Paterno is not classified as a senior staff member—he ran the place. "He built this university, he built this town, and everybody knows it," says longtime State College resident Mark Brennan, a journalist who chronicles Penn State athletics. In 2004, Curley and Spanier visited Paterno at his home to suggest that, at age 77 and after a 3--9 season in '03, he should retire. Paterno, in effect, told them to get off his lawn. They acceded. He went on to coach eight more years. There were less dramatic if more literal examples too. Cindy Way, a Penn State alum who lives in town, once took a shortcut across the grass near the on-campus skating rink. Paterno jumped out of his car and told her to take the sidewalk. "It was," she says, "like being scolded by God."
As his program ascended, so much about the school seemed to cast itself in Paterno's image. The team's nameless jerseys and unadorned white helmets reflected the hidebound coach. Like JoePa, an English major at Brown who became a successful football coach, Penn State, a regional agricultural school, became a premier research institution with a football program courted by the Big Ten. The school thinks of itself as a striver that reached the grand stage, fiercely independent and unapologetic, celebrating old-fashioned mores. (To wit: an on-campus creamery.) Paterno's self-styled morality—Success with Honor was his trusted motto—was absorbed by osmosis on the campus, creating a certain high-mindedness that sometimes bled into righteousness. The school's rallying cry—"We are Penn State!"—implies that no further explanation is needed. We get it. You don't.
Their domain is Happy Valley, and while it's the Happy that's stressed, the Valley is significant too. For a prominent university, Penn State is remarkably isolated, nestled in the hinterlands of Pennsylvania, six hours from the nearest conference rival and three hours from a major city. (As many learned last week, the impenetrability is heightened by a status that exempts PSU from meaningful state open-records laws. Many documents related to the Sandusky case, such as e-mails between university officials, are not subject to public disclosure.) Like Russian nesting dolls, there are levels of isolation within Penn State, the innermost of which is the football team, which has separate facilities from the rest of the athletic programs and a lavish training facility all its own.
Such insularity has worked to the benefit of the team's image. While the Nittany Lions eagerly trumpeted to recruits that they had never faced serious NCAA scrutiny or sanction, it has hardly been a spotless program. Three years ago ESPN reported that between 2002 and '08, 46 players had been charged with a total of 163 crimes ranging from public urination to murder. In March, SI published arrest tallies for all the programs in its Top 25. Penn State tied for fourth, with 16 players on the '10 opening-game roster who had been charged with a crime. Last week Harrisburg's Patriot-News, which broke the story of the Sandusky investigation in March, made passing reference to "a player-related knife fight in a campus dining hall" that was broken up by assistant coach Mike McQueary in '08.
In 2005, defensive end LaVon Chisley was quietly kicked off the team for academic reasons and, according to prosecutors, began racking up debts. He was never drafted, and that summer he murdered his former roommate, a campus marijuana dealer. Chisley is serving a life sentence. Yet when asked about the incident at a press conference after the conviction, Paterno brushed it aside: "I have no comment on that.... Why should I?" And when ESPN questioned Paterno about the spate of player arrests, he responded, "I don't know anything about it." In 2003, after Tony Johnson, a wide receiver and the son of a Penn State assistant coach, was arrested for DUI, Paterno complained that "it will get all blown out of proportion because he's a football player. But he didn't do anything to anybody." While the coach apologized for that last remark, the image of Penn State as a haven of virtue—at least by the limbo-bar standards of big-time college football—persisted.
Karen G. Muir, a State College attorney who has represented Penn State football players in legal trouble, says she has seen firsthand how the team will sacrifice an individual for the sake of the program. After Penn State defensive tackle Chris Baker, later an NFL player, was involved in two off-field fights, Muir says she planned to go to trial to defend him from criminal charges, yet coaches prevailed on her client to take a plea bargain, thus sparing the program protracted embarrassment. "My experience is that Penn State football closes ranks and their focus is on the program as opposed to the individual," Muir says. "The program didn't care as much what was best for my kid."