Penn State football coach Joe Paterno released a statement saying he will retire at the end of the season, ending his 46 year tenure with the Nittany Lions, but to fully understand what he lost in the Jerry Sandusky abuse scandal, you need to understand the kingdom he built. But first, the full text of Paterno's resignation notice:
I am absolutely devastated by the developments in this case. I grieve for the children and their families, and I pray for their comfort and relief.
I have come to work every day for the last 61 years with one clear goal in mind: To serve the best interests of this university and the young men who have been entrusted to my care. I have the same goal today.
That's why I have decided to announce my retirement effective at the end of this season. At this moment the Board of Trustees should not spend a single minute discussing my status. They have far more important matters to address. I want to make this as easy for them as I possibly can.
This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.
My goals now are to keep my commitments to my players and staff and finish the season with dignity and determination. And then I will spend the rest of my life doing everything I can to help this University.
"Effective at the end of the season" likely means after Penn State's bowl game, but there's no guarantee PSU administrators will sign off on his desired timetable. The New York Times notes Paterno's "immediate future is still in the hands of the board, which is scheduled to meet Friday," with Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett expected to be in attendance, as the school, state, and athletic department face mounting criticism about not doing enough after first hearing about alleged improper contact between former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky and a young boy. With the stakes this high it might not matter, but The Times notes that Paterno has had "a contentious relationship with some members of the Board of Trustees for years," including university president Graham Spanier, who in 2004 went to Paterno's house twice with other board members to persuade him to resign after back-to-back losing seasons. Paterno refused and led Penn State to an Orange Bowl victory the next season. There's also the possibility Spanier might not make it to the Friday meeting. A source tells ESPN.com's Joe Schad that the school's board of trustees "has weighed the possibility of having former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge replace the embattled Spanier."
Until university administrators tell Paterno his tenure has to end early, his timetable for stepping down is the only one in play. But it's too early to begin speculating on how the Sandusky allegations and Paterno's response will damage his legacy. Former Ohio State coach Woody Hayes led the Buckeyes to eight Rose Bowl berths during his 27 seasons in Columbus, but the fact he was fired for punching a Clemson player during the 1978 Gator Bowl was in the first paragraph of his New York Times obituary. Compared to the possible consequences of Paterno's silence, the Hayes punch seems genteel by comparison. The fact he won 409 games, the most of any major college football coach, won't help him a lick. But it's helpful to understand what made Penn State and Joe Paterno unique to begin with.
''The Grand Experiment"
Paterno's vision of the Penn State program was first outlined in October 1967. "It sounds a little corny, I know," he admitted, "but it's that kind of thing for us because we intend doing it with people who belong at Penn State." Paterno, a Brown alum, envisioned a great football program with a roster comprised of guys who would succeed on the field and in "all the other things college has to offer," including music, literature, and the performing arts.
The School That Joe Built
When Paterno arrived in Happy Valley, Penn State was a cow college. The New York Times puts it a bit more delicately, noting that the school wasan "agriculture-centric university" at the time of Paterno's arrival. Beaver Stadium sat 46,000 during his first season. In 2011, the maximum capacity is close to 107,000. Last year, the football program generated a $53 million profit for the school. Paterno personally donated "more than $5 million ... enough to build a new library and spiritual center." The cow college is now "a major research institution, a place whose greatest symbol was a bookish-looking, Ivy League-educated coach with thick eyeglasses who roamed the sideline in a windbreaker and tie." Over the years, he donated an additional $4.275 million of his own money for school building projects.
He Hated Richard Nixon
Penn State was undefeated in 1969. So was the University of Texas, but Texas won the national championship after President Richard Nixon gave them a plaque that read "National Champion" after they beat Arkansas in their last regular season game. Paterno, an arch-conservative Republican, couldn't fathom why Nixon was getting into the business or crowning football champions, and why he was doing it before any bowl games had been played. It was one of those things Paterno could never quite let go, but as he got older it became one of his many likable eccentricities. Speaking at PSU graduation in 1973, he said of the president : "How could Nixon know so little about Watergate and so much about football?" Three years ago at a pep rally, he recalls Nixon requesting the team visit him in Washington after going undefeated in 1968 and 1969, which resulted in some choice words for the commander-in-chief.
Real Student Athletes
A key part of the "The Grand Experiment" is having players that graduate. In that retrospect, no other big time program has graduated players as consistently and won games consistently like Penn State. Out of 120 FBS college football programs, Penn State graduated 87 percent of its players last year, tied for tenth best in the country with Stanford.
The Happiest Place on Earth
Sports Illustrated named Paterno its Sportsman of the Year for 1986, two weeks before the Nittany Lions beat the trash-talking Miami Hurricanes in the Fiesta Bowl. Paterno explained how he pitches recruits on wearing black hightops and plain white helmets in the middle of Pennsylvania. "Look," Paterno explained, "we're so cynical about everything these days Everybody's a cynic. But what if an 18-year-old kid wants to be an idealist? What if he wants to find some integrity in college athletics? Where's he going to go?" In the same piece, Sports Illustrated's Rick Reilly inadvertently revealed how the school's isolation can work both ways. Writes Reilly: "Paterno once got a standing O at a basketball game just for getting up and going to the bathroom. How would the NCAA look investigating Penn State? Paterno could suddenly decide to turn Penn State into State Pen and nobody would notice for four or five years."
The Family Thing
A Penn State alum named Jack Popovic tells the Palm Beach Post, "It's like someone died ... it's a family thing." That's the role Paterno played to his players and students in Happy Valley. He was an uncle a grandfather, somebody to make proud. This is heartbreakingly on display in a brief clip of former Nittany Lions defensive end Tamba Hali returning to Happy Valley over the summer with his new baby daughter. They're there to see Joe Pa and he's there for them. It breaks your heart.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.