In the weeks since the still-stunning dismissal was made official, supporters and detractors alike have been clamoring for deposed head coach Joe Paterno to give his side of the story, to begin to explain why he took the tack he did when he was first made aware of one of his trusted former assistants allegedly sodomizing a boy in football building shower.
For the first time since being fired Nov. 9, the legendary head coach has done just that. Somewhat. Sorta.
In an exclusive sit-down interview with the Washington Post‘s Sally Jenkins, Paterno, with his attorney in the room, addressed a wide range of issues and questions, from the aftermath of his ouster to his treatment for lung cancer to, yes, Jerry Sandusky.
The central question, though, the one that nearly everyone has on their mind, is a simple one: why? Why did Paterno, after turning over information he had received from a grad assistant — Mike McQueary, the Nittany Lions quarterbacks coach who has been a central figure in the case against Sandusky — that Sandusky was naked in a shower with a 10-year-old boy in 2002, do the bare minimum as legally required by law? Why did Paterno, the most powerful man at Penn State University regardless of title, not follow-up after handing the information over to his athletic director and president?
Nine years later, it appears Paterno is still struggling to answer those questions in his own head.
“I didn’t know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was,” he said. “So I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did. It didn’t work out that way.”
Paterno went on to at least attempt to further explain to Jenkins why he didn’t pursue the matter further after handing over McQueary and his information to athletic director Tim Curley and another high-ranking university official.
Paterno’s portrait of himself is of an old-world man profoundly confused by what McQueary told him, and who was hesitant to make follow-up calls because he did not want to be seen as trying to exert any influence for or against Sandusky. “I didn’t know which way to go,” he said. “And rather than get in there and make a mistake . . .”
He reiterated that McQueary was unclear with him about the nature of what he saw — and added that even if McQueary had been more graphic, he’s not sure he would have comprehended it.
“You know, he didn’t want to get specific,” Paterno said. “And to be frank with you I don’t know that it would have done any good, because I never heard of, of, rape and a man. So I just did what I thought was best. I talked to people that I thought would be, if there was a problem, that would be following up on it.”
Paterno also hit on other topics…
- On his firing: “Whether it’s fair I don’t know, but they do it. You would think I ran the show here.” That statement comes courtesy of a man who, legend has it, chased Curley and then-president Graham Spanier out of his house several years ago when the two came to fire him. he was not fired.
- On how Sandusky was allowed to engage in his alleged deviant acts with young boys while going undetected: “I wish I knew. I don’t know the answer to that. It’s hard.” The premise of the question is absurd, of course, as several high-ranking members of the university were made aware of allegations involving Sandusky dating as far back as 1998.
- Paterno and his wife were in their nightclothes getting ready for bed on the night of Nov. 9 when there was a knock on the door. On the other side of the door was a university employee bearing a piece of paper and a name on it. Paterno dialed the number and the voice on the other end, vice trustees chairman John Surma, telling him “[i]n the best interests of the university, you are terminated.” Paterno’s irate wife Sue called the number back. “After 61 years he deserved better. He deserved better.”
- On why he waited until this interview, which was conducted Thursday and Friday, to speak out publicly: “I wanted everybody to settle down.”
- Paterno said he had “no inkling” that Sandusky might be a pedophile, and described their relationship as “professional, not social” due to the fact that his former assistant “was a lot younger than me.”
- Paterno said he told Sandusky that he couldn’t spend the time with his children’s charity — The Second Mile, which he allegedly used as a “recruiting ground” for victims — if he wanted to also become a head coach. Paterno maintained that Sandusky retired in 1998 after being told he would not become Paterno’s successor at Penn State. Sandusky was urged by Paterno to take the 30-year retirement package being offered by the school.
- Paterno claims he was unaware of an incident in 1998 in which Sandusky allegedly molested a boy in a shower. Curley as well as police were aware of the incident, and it was investigated before it was decided charges would not be pursued. ”You know it wasn’t like it was something everybody in the building knew about,” Paterno said of the 1998 incident. “Nobody knew about it.”
- Paterno would not pass judgment on Sandusky’s guilt or innocence. “I think we got to wait and see what happens. The courts are taking care of it, the legal system is taking care of it.” If Sandusky is found guilty? ”I’m sick about it.”
Other than being his first post-firing interview, Jenkins’ exceptionally written piece did not, as somewhat expected, plow much new ground. Perhaps the most fascinating — and sad on multiple levels — aspect of the interview was the conversation turning to the victims of Sandusky’s alleged sexual abuse and Paterno and his wife personalizing it into what their reactions would’ve been if it had involved a member of their own family.
The Paternos say they think about the real potential victims every time they look at their own children. “I got three boys and two girls,” Paterno said. “It’s sickening.” His knee-jerk response is to go back to Flatbush. “Violence is not the way to handle it,” he said. “But for me, I’d get a bunch of guys and say let’s go punch somebody in the nose.” Sue Paterno is more blunt. “If someone touched my child, there wouldn’t be a trial, I would have killed them,” she said. “That would be my attitude, because you have destroyed someone for life.”
In other words, if Paterno had received the same information he did in 2002, but “10-year-old boy” was replaced with “great-grandson”, jeopardizing university procedures would have been the last thing on the former coach’s mind and someone would have paid for whatever happened in that on-campus shower. Instead, the bare minimum was done for somebody’s else’s child.
It has been stated multiple times in the past couple of months that Paterno has been wanting to get his side of the story out, that he wanted to address the situation in his own words. To some degree, he did just that, although if someone were a supporter or a detractor coming in, that’s likely where they still stand upon finishing the interview.
For me, it merely served as yet another reminder of how sad and disturbing and disgusting this whole sordid situation remains. And how it could’ve been stopped in 2002, sparing several innocent victims from the actions of an alleged pedophile.