Wednesday, November 09, 2011

After 46 years, it's over

There'll be no end of the season for Joe Paterno:
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State trustees fired football coach Joe Paterno and university president Graham Spanier amid the growing furor over how the school handled sex abuse allegations against an assistant coach.

The massive shakeup Wednesday night came hours after Paterno announced that he planned to retire at the end of his 46th season.

Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley will be interim coach and provost Rodney Erickson interim school president.

And just like that, it's over. The whole thing went down in less than 72 hours.

It shouldn't be that surprising after everything that's come out, but it is. I always assumed I'd wake up one day and he'd just be gone -- not retired or fired but gone. There's nobody I can think of who's more directly associated with a school/team, and after he made it through the meh mid-2000s with his job security intact, I figured he'd be at Penn State until the day he died. Nothing else would be right (for a given definition of "right").

It's not Joe Paterno's team anymore. That's a pretty hard thing to grasp, regardless of whether firing him was the "right" (in a judgmental sense) thing to do. I started to write a bunch of stuff here about the weirdness of firing him with three games left when he had volunteered to walk out the door and end things in a far less painful manner, but it struck me that the football part of all of this just doesn't matter. The first question asked at a surreal press conference Wednesday night announcing the firing of a university president was, "Who will coach the team Saturday?" It was asked in the same pantingly excited way my kids ask about Santa and the Easter bunny, and that made me sad. There's really no question that Paterno had to go, but seeing as how chaos is engulfing Happy Valley as I type, it must have taken some serious sacking up to make that sort of riot-inducing, legacy-altering decision when the easy choice would have been letting him walk away.

I can't imagine how uncomfortable the next month is gonna be for Tom Bradley, who's been at Penn State for 34 years and has been the de facto head coach for about the last 10 (I'm going on the assumption that nobody on the staff other than Paterno and Mike McQueary explicitly knew about the Jerry Sandusky awfulness). I bet Saturday's game will be ... ummm ... difficult. What makes it especially unfortunate is that he earned his role as eventual successor through three decades of work and will be rewarded with three incredibly awkward games and a bowl, at which point the requisite housecleaning can begin. No need to wait on the Urban Meyer speculation. I'd feel sorry for the innocent people left behind if my Penn State-related sympathy weren't designated for a more appropriate group.

It also sucks that "Penn State fires Paterno" has overtaken everything else in the news cycle, most notably the horrific crimes that started the whole thing. He didn't deserve to finish the season, but I wonder if trying to move on (for lack of a better term) from the controversy via removing the relevant figure just created a whole lot more while inadvertently (I think) shifting the story away from where it should be. Maybe the trustees figured around-the-clock Paterno discussion was better than around-the-clock "sexual abuse and coverup at Penn State" discussion. I dunno. This probably wasn't what they had in mind:

What a terrible ending.


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