Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 761

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 761

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This is the grave of Joe Paterno.

Born in Brooklyn in 1926, Paterno grew up in a strong Italian Catholic family. He graduated from high school in 1944 and was drafted upon graduation. He served in the Army for a year, was discharged in 1946, and went to play college football at Brown. He still holds the career all-time interceptions record for the Bears, while also playing QB. He graduated with a degree in English Literature in 1950. He was going to go to law school at Boston University, but was offered a position as an assistant coach at Penn State after his former Brown coach moved there. He took that offer. He rose in the ranks and never left Penn State.

Paterno became head coach in 1966. Through the rest of the 20th century, his Nittany Lions teams were among the best in the country. They won two national championships, in 1982 and 1986. Moreover, his teams repeatedly got the short end of the stick when there were disputed champions, since the best teams didn’t actually play each other in the bowls most of the time, most notably if a Pac-10 or Big 10 team were #1 or #2, since they played each other in the Rose Bowl. If you talk to Penn State fans, they will remind you of this repeatedly. One of the claims is in the 1981 season, which is weak since the team went 10-2 and Clemson was undefeated. The far stronger case is for 1994, when Nebraska and Penn State were both undefeated. But by this time, Penn State had joined the Big 10 and thus played a scrappy upstart Oregon team in the Rose Bowl. I was at that game and….Penn State was one hell of a team, led by Kerry Collins at QB and Ki-Jana Carter at RB. But Miami beat Nebraska and was given the national title based just on the whims of the media. Of course, it was unfair if Penn State had won it too over Miami. Just a ridiculous system. Penn State also has a legitimate claim to 1969 as well, when they went undefeated and so did Texas but the Longhorns won the AP title.

By 2000, Paterno was getting old and probably should have retired. The team really struggled between 2000 and 2004, having a losing record during those years. Paterno announced that if 2005 was a bad year, he would retire, but then they went 11-1. So he stuck around. He coached all the way until 2011, making a mere 62 years at Penn State. There were problems, especially toward the end, with a lot of arrests of players. Paterno was very old and running a very loose ship by this time. On the other hand, he was only making about $500,000 a year when he could have made millions more. He simply didn’t caret that much about making a lot of money. And he was interesting in other ways too. Unlike basically every football coach that exists now, Paterno was deeply involved in academic life at Penn State. He read a lot, he went to academic talks, and he endowed many chairs at the university, including in the humanities. He was a Republican and an active one at that, actually door knocking in the New Hampshire primaries for support for George H.W. Bush, but his son was a big Obama supporter and he didn’t hold it against him, so this makes him less evil than so many other Republicans, at least compared to the monsters of the present.

However……….

If Paterno had not covered for his defensive coordinator raping young boys, we would remember him today as a college coach who seemed like a better person than most of that less than noble species, a guy who maybe stuck around too long, but with his iconic anti-style and tradition of success in building one of college football’s most famous programs, as one of the legends of the game.

Instead, he chose to cover up his defensive coordinator raping young boys.

In November 2011, Jerry Sandusky was arrested and charged with 52 counts of raping young boys going back to 1994. No doubt there were more. In 2001, Penn State graduate assistant and former QB Mike McQueary told Paterno this was happening. McQueary had seen this happen in the shower, Sandusky’s preferred place of predation. Paterno did nothing. He told upper administration, but it’s not as if this was not rumored forever before. After all, Sandusky never got a head coaching offer, despite being the long-time and extremely successful coordinator for a consistent winner. While this is speculation, it almost had to be the rumors about his personal behavior. But hey, why let a little child rape get in the way of coaching up Lavar Arrington! All Paterno was legally required to do here was to tell his immediate supervisor. He did that and then, well, nothing happened.

So Paterno probably didn’t break any laws, but he was shown to have no moral code at all. How one can know this information and do absolutely nothing is something that I will never understand. But what Penn State fans couldn’t understand is why people were being mean to their heroic coach. That was all most of them cared about. Students rallied in support of Paterno. He led them in public chants of “We Are Penn State!” He didn’t seem to get that he had done anything wrong at all. But life moved fast for Paterno, finally. On November 9, he announced he would retire at the end of the season. The Board of Trustees fired him that night. Penn State students responded by rioting in the streets of State College.

Now, college students will be college students. I get that. But rioting in the streets over someone being fired for covering up child rape? That is just beyond any comprehension I have for human behavior. The investigation, led by Louis Freeh, found out that even though Sandusky had “retired” in 1999, Paterno allowed him to have free and full access to the facility for his program with young at risk boys, many of whom he was raping in the athletic department showers, even after the 2001 knowledge came to light. After the Freeh Report came to light, the response of the Penn State family was to…attack Freeh. And this came from on high–Dick Thornburgh, former Attorney General of the United States (and recently deceased now himself) led this campaign, writing a letter about the injustices against Paterno’s reputation.

But Paterno did not live to see any of this. Just days after his firing, Paterno was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died in 2012, at the age of 85.

My disgust with the Penn State world has not abated with time. It sure as hell did not abate when I saw how Penn State fans had made the gravesite a shrine. How you can see this man and what he covered up and still revere him years after his death? I mean, I’d root for Ohio State over Penn State now. I might even root for Notre Dame. Yuck. May Penn State never win another title. Or another football game.

Joe Paterno is buried in Spring Creek Presbyterian Cemetery, State College, Pennsylvania.

Paterno was fired with the most wins in college football history. He has since been passed by John Gagliardi, who was a Division III coach at Carroll College and St. John’s in Minnesota. But he’s still #2. If you want this series to visit other leading college football coaches, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Eddie Robinson is in Grambling, Louisiana and Bear Bryant is in Birmingham, Alabama. I am heading out this morning for a week-long grave mission thanks to all of your donations. Since I have hardly left home in 10 months, I am looking forward to the most socially distanced activity imaginable, finding terrible dead Americans and taking pictures of their graves. And boy do I have a list of horrible Americans to visit coming up here. Some of the very worst. So maybe you want to help support that mission too. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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