Paterno only latest exposed 'saint'

Joe Paterno. (MATT SULLIVAN/Reuters file photo)

Joe Paterno. (MATT SULLIVAN/Reuters file photo)

JOHN KRYK, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:22 PM ET

Joe Paterno is only the latest example.

For 120-odd years, many behind-the-scenes abuses in U.S. college football and basketball have been perpetrated by a supposed saint, protected by his impenetrable, carefully self-crafted armour of purity.

As a college football historian and researcher, I can tell you that the Paterno case is not isolated. I have personally discovered other examples down through the years.

The first duplicitous deity in college sports history was Amos Alonzo Stagg, who most notably was the football coach at the University of Chicago from 1892 to 1932. Until the 1990s, it was universally believed that Lonny Stagg had been the most fair, ethical and honest figure ever to grace American sport.

"Few men in history have set so persuasive and shining an example as a teacher, coach and citizen. His integrity (is) unmatched," wrote U.S. President John F. Kennedy in 1962.

Stagg himself actively fanned all those laudatory flames, famously contending that "I should prefer to lose every game than win one unfairly."

And for all those decades, the "Grand Old Man" was painted as a paragon of virtue by the sporting press.

Sound familiar?

The truth, as scholar Robin Lester first discovered -- and I will be following up in my own book with even more egregious examples -- is that at least in his early years, Stagg was as hell-bent on winning, and on procuring and protecting his saintly image, as any cut-throat or iconic coach of any generation.

Similarly, other "legendary" figures have cut corners while professing to be pure.

Among them: Fielding H. Yost at Michigan in the 1920s; Bear Bryant at Kentucky and Alabama in the '50s, '60s and '70s; and, until as recently as a year ago, Jim Tressel at Ohio State.

As I wrote last November, shortly after the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke, the public's love for such coaches is not phony. Bryant could have been elected Alabama governor in a landslide at any time, and former long-time Nebraska coach Tom Osborne was voted into the U.S. House of Representatives three years after retiring in 1997.

It all starts with winning.

Once the landmark wins start piling up, a coach can plant his seeds of righteousness, splash water on them occasionally and just watch his glistening reputation grow. Such as when they write a book on how to succeed behind a life of honesty.

Tressel's was titled The Winners Manual: For the Game of Life. If he'd only followed his own advice, he'd probably still be dominating the Big Ten at Ohio State.

Instead, Tressel was forced to resign in disgrace for repeatedly lying about knowing that some of his players were receiving illegal benefits.

It's when a coach's success lasts about a decade that he becomes a local institution, incapable of doing any wrong. Untouchable. Then, in time, all-powerful -- until the point that even the university president is a sycophantic toady, or powerless apologist. Or both.

As for Paterno, the Freeh Report's findings two weeks ago revealed that, despite his denying it to a grand jury last year, he knew all about the 1998 incident in which Sandusky was spotted by a janitor sexually abusing a boy in the football team's locker room.

For the next 13 years, JoePa kept a lid tight on that embarrassing information, and on the 2001 incident, in which an assistant coach discovered Sandusky abusing a different boy in the team's showers.

The Freeh Report essentially concluded that Paterno convinced his superiors that the "humane" thing to do was to do absolutely nothing, both times.

Why?

Because JoePa apparently would not allow anything to tarnish the blindingly shiny halo he'd been forging for 46 years, a halo he summed up with his well-known "success with honour" credo.

The paramount lesson going forward from the Penn State scandal -- and from the NCAA's harsh but apt punishments handed down Monday -- really should have been learned decades ago.

That is, that when a college sports coach assumes mythical, saintly, untouchable, all-powerful status, watch out.

Don't believe it. And just watch the hell out.


Videos

Photos