Wrestling with JoePa’s Legacy | Out and About April 2012

For three days in June of 1988, the United States Olympic Committee co-hosted an academic conference at Penn State University. Current and former Olympic athletes, coaches, and team leaders from both the Summer and Winter Games were invited to attend. The curriculum included presentations on the 1980 Summer Olympic boycott, the use of anabolic steroids in amateur sports, and the commercialization of the Olympics, among dozens of other fascinating topics.

Even before the conference began, there was a buzz about Joe Paterno. As college coaches ourselves, we chuckled at the life-sized, cardboard representations of Paterno for sale in the college bookstore. Here was a football coach who had achieved rock star, celebrity status. Paterno was one of more than a dozen presenters the first day of the conference, and there wasn’t a vacant seat in the auditorium. His talk seemed off the cuff, perhaps a little rambling, but clearly focused on his lifelong crusade for excellence, both on the playing field and in the classroom.

When he finished, a line of attendees who wanted to shake his hand formed quickly. I had a reason to join the line. Not long before the conference, a new Dartmouth athletic director fired the college’s admired, head football coach, who had a year remaining on his contract. Many of us thought he was getting a raw deal. To our delight, the coach took the contract dispute to court, where his friend and mentor, Joe Paterno, spoke on his behalf, helping to win the case. When my turn arrived, I introduced myself, mentioned that I coached skiing at Dartmouth and thanked him for supporting his former colleague. Paterno became animated as we shook hands and said something like, “Aw, that was stupid. Why the college didn’t just let him finish out his contract, I’ll never know. He’s a good coach and a great guy.”

Later, I had the opportunity to speak with a Penn State PhD candidate who had made a presentation on steroid abuse in collegiate athletics. I asked him how Paterno had become such an icon at the university. He responded by sharing a story. Several years earlier, the Penn State football program was rebuilding, having lost many of its top players to graduation. Planning and budgeting for the upcoming season had been completed recognizing that post-season play or a bowl game invitation was unlikely. But the younger players exceeded expectations, the regular season was successful, and the team did play in a bowl game. When Paterno and the players returned to campus, the coach presented Penn State’s share of the bowl game television revenue, a check for nearly $1 million, to the university library! The grad student concluded his story with a question, “Name me another football coach of a nationally prominent program that would have done that.” Ultimately, Paterno helped raise $14 million to rebuild Penn State’s library, his family contributing $4 million.

What struck me at the time of that conference, almost 25 years ago, was Paterno’s conviction that excellence in collegiate athletics and academics were not mutually exclusive. As a coach at Dartmouth, I often had the feeling the athletic department and the academic professors were at odds, competing for the precious time and commitment of the undergraduates. One particularly perverse example was a Russian professor who threatened to fail one of my skiers who requested an excused absence from two weeks of classes, to compete in the Biathlon Junior World Championships, in Minsk, Russia!

Somehow, at Penn State, Joe Paterno had helped to create an atmosphere where academic and athletic excellence could, and did coexist. Like everyone else, I was horrified by the revelations, last November, of the scandal involving former Penn State assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky. I suspect that even after extensive investigations and a lengthy trial, there is much we will never know regarding who knew what, and when they knew it. While the real tragedy is Sandusky’s alleged abuse of vulnerable boys, it’s also tremendously sad to see Joe Paterno’s lifetime legacy tarnished.

John Morton

John Morton is a former Olympic biathlete and Nordic ski coach. He lives in Thetford Center, where he designs Nordic ski trails. You can reach him through his website, www.mortontrails.com.