Of Fairy Tales and Fallacies: Coach K and Paterno

Please welcome Jill to the TRB fray. This is her first post for the site.

Once upon a time, during a chilly November, two revered athletic programs sat on the brink of history. In one arena, nearly 10,000 fans, dressed in blue and white, cheered in adoration, celebrating their legendary coach. In another, over 100,000 fans, also dressed in blue and white, cheered in confusion, mourning the loss of theirs. Only 435 miles separate the Gothic Wonderland from Happy Valley, but on Saturday, the two college havens, both of which sound like villages out of a fairy tale, could not feel farther apart.

As we have recently and painfully learned, a storybook ending can be rewritten in a matter of days. On October 29th, Coach Joe Paterno set the all-time record for wins in Division I football. His Penn State faithful worshiped accordingly, kneeling in reverence before his bronze statue on campus. The man they lovingly call JoePa, like everyone’s favorite grandpa, was an elder statesman who ruled over his Happy Valley Kingdom for six decades with a heart seemingly made of gold. Although insufferably arrogant at times, it was with this heart that he set a gold standard, both for his football program and for his university. He poured his soul into Penn State, he donated and raised millions of dollars, he won two championships without one NCAA infraction, he benefited the lives of thousands. Those facts are unquestionable. On November 9th, just 11 days after making history, Joe Paterno was unceremoniously fired by telephone. It is also unquestionable that he deserved to be.

The missing link here is the lost chapter, 23 pages of horror, jointly released on November 5th by the Attorney General and Police Commissioner, which paints a much darker picture of a now very tragic figure. And like with many fairy tales, after reading this new chapter, we learned that his story, at least in part, was nothing more than a staggering work of heartbreaking fiction. We can call it The Old Man who Lived in a Sham.

On Saturday, we closed the book on a legendary coach who poisoned himself with a legendary scandal, and we began writing its sequel. A fresh start and an opportunity to atone for a decade of willful ignorance. The inhabitants of Happy Valley seemed torn between wanting to honor The Old Man and wanting to portray the shame from which he ultimately did not protect them. Amongst the usual painted faces and thundering marching band, students collected money for victims of sex crimes; they wore blue, not to honor their players, but to raise awareness for child abuse. Juxtaposed against a protest by the Westboro Baptist Church of Crazies, people prayed in front of Paterno’s statue. They left tokens of thanks on his front lawn. Although he never basked in a final standing ovation at Beaver Stadium, many Penn State fans wanted to give Joe Paterno a proper send-off; they simply did not know whether he deserved such a goodbye. And in many ways, I think it is impossible to balance 60 years of service and his incredible accomplishments with an abysmal failure to monitor a monster who preyed on children – especially when there is evidence that the Old Man had the chance to stop the monster.

As the final seconds ticked off the clock and the scoreboard read 17-14, the conflicted crowd accepted the loss, symbolizing perhaps the greatest one in Penn State’s storied existence. The loss of a football game, the loss of a legend, the loss of innocence. Whether you cried for the victims or shed a tear for the downfall of a false hero, Saturday marked the emotional final chapter in a saga that can no longer be called a fairy tale. The monster ate the Old Man. In his empty chair, all that remain are a thick pair of glasses. And in their confused silence, the townspeople are left to wonder why the Old Man did not use those glasses to see the monster in his presence all those years before. Why he did not put an end to the evil he facilitated. Instead, he sadly let evil destroy him, his career, his legacy. And when he did, the final line of his story was instantly, albeit reluctantly, rewritten. It now whispers, “We Are…Penn State. We Are…Penn State. We Are…Sorry.” But there can be no happily ever after in Happy Valley.

The same cannot be said of the Gothic Wonderland. On Saturday, two weeks after Paterno made history, we watched the legendary Coach Mike Krzyzewski tie the all-time record for wins in Division I basketball. While it should be expected that our basketball team would throttle any team called the Blue Hose – there was something particularly special about the 96-55 rout of Presbyterian. Maybe it was because we were almost humiliated the night before by Belmont. Maybe it was because, with victory number 902, we entered a new echelon of awesomeness. Maybe it was because we still have a hero in our midst and we know it. Considering recent events, it means more than ever.

Saturday was special because we watched our fairy tale continue to unfold, as scripted. We are still blind believers in a historic athletic program, which is assuredly better than any of yours. As I explained last year, we know that most people hate Duke and we just don’t care. We still have someone to bow down to, quite literally, when he walks onto the court. We still arrogantly believe that we conduct ourselves properly, that we are superior both on the field and in the classroom, that we are a blueprint for all other teams to follow, that we are, and always will be, the best. Until he gives us reason to believe otherwise, we will always worship Coach K (even if our hero-protagonist looks like a short troll elf) and it will always piss you off. But he has earned it and you are most likely jealous. And for the time being, we can still act like elitist assholes because of it, which Saturday affirmed.

Then again, until a week ago, we erroneously put Coach Paterno on the same pedestal. Our Gothic Wonderland fairy tale, god forbid, could never be tragically rewritten like the one in Happy Valley…right? It is hard not to have a fleeting moment of panic and wonder “what if?” What if this was Duke? What if, somewhere deep in the equipment closets of Cameron, there is a horrific skeleton that Coach K buried under dusty championship banners and broken trophies? What if, for example, we learn that Chris Collins (no offense to Coach Collins) is Michael Jackson reincarnated a la Uncle Jerry, Perv of the Year? I am not implying that there is such a scandal, I am simply wondering, in horror, how I would feel if, one day, a Grand Jury eviscerated my own campus and hero.

I have tried to imagine something heinous that would silence Cameron Indoor. Something that would shame and shock the school to its core. A few people have argued with me that we must reserve judgment because this could be “just like the Duke lacrosse scandal.” I am not trying to be a homer here, but this is nothing like what happened in Durham. This is not a one-time party gone wrong or a questionably credible stripper, but a decade of repeated sexual abuse against at least nine young boys, where school authorities had substantial evidence to take decisive action. If anything, with the Duke lacrosse case, our school officials took decisive action with little to no information at all. And, with all due respect, Duke lacrosse is not Duke basketball or Penn State football. So it is not like we, as Blue Devils, can fathom how it feels to be in Happy Valley. We can empathize with a perfect storm of media attention, but we cannot imagine what it is like to have your most revered athletic program, something you worship like religion, crumble before your eyes. As hard as I have tried, I genuinely cannot imagine it.

I would like to think that we could never do something like that. I do not say that from an elitist perspective, but a collective one of incomprehensible disbelief and sadness. Because by “we,” I do not mean Coach K or Duke. I mean the Blue Devils, the Tar Heels, the Nittany Lions, the Yankees, the Red Sox; I mean any human being or organization. In the simplest of terms and at the most basic level of decency, you hope that as individuals, whether the hero in a fairy tale or the janitor in a locker room, we could never allow something like this to happen – in the first place or ever again. I hope that when I read our final chapter, when Coach K gallantly rides in his Duke blue Jaguar down Towerview Drive for the last time, we will cry in pride, in adoration, in honor of the last great coach in college athletics. And above all else, I hope we cling to our happily ever after, because it has never seemed more fragile than it does right now.

It was not long ago, just this past June, that Coach Paterno and Coach K sat down together and riffed about what it is like to lead with honor and class. About how good can triumph over evil. About how actions speak louder than words. I believed both of them. Yet of the two legends, only one remains. In the most gut-wrenching of ways, it turns out that heroes can be hollow and fairy tales can be facades.

Jill is a graduate of Duke University and UNC Law; her loyalties, however, lie only in the Gothic Wonderland. Check out her all-purpose sports blog, Chicks Dig The Fastball, at www.chicksdigthefastball.blogspot.com.

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2 Responses to Of Fairy Tales and Fallacies: Coach K and Paterno

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  1. sanfransoxfan says:

    Great writing Jill. You captured exactly the uncertainty & dread at the “what if” that I’ve been feeling. I would like to think K would have acted differently – the West Point honor code runs deep through his veins. But ultimate power (and he’s got it) corrupts ultimately (and ultimately corrupts?). And let’s face it – one week ago I believed “JoePa” was the kind of man who would have done the right thing, and done it right, damn the torpedoes.

    And what of our rivals? I’d also like to think ole Roy and company would step up, do the right thing. They’ve been shaken hard by their football scandal over there, which is starting to look awfully pedestrian by comparison, but as with our Lacrosse scandal, it’s scary enough when the curtain slips even just a little.

    This episode has been pretty cathartic. When innocent lives are damaged, things like rivalries are meaningless. You can’t stop bad people from doing bad things until you catch them, so if we ever see a proper response coming from our rival’s camp to a “bad thing” they not only get a full pass in the piling on department from me, they get my respect and gratitude. I’ll hope for the same if our program ever has to do the right thing, and I’ll also hope like hell, as you do, that our past (and theirs) is clean.

    Thanks. Looking forward to this quality of writing applied to a happier subject.

  2. cavdevil says:

    Good topic and a clever comparison between two empirical programs. Though I’m not sure that the “we’re the best mantra” flies everywhere in Durham. If you were in Devines watching us crash against VCU, WVU, and Villanova, then you would have a decidedly different take. The Duke grads that I know have a more even-handed view of the program.

    For the people that know basketball, I’m pretty sure that losing to Belmont would not be an embarrassment. I was extremely worried about this game, and for good reason. Their coach has won 600 plus games, and marshalled a team that had seniority, depth, a pressing style, and confidence. That’s the recipe that VCU had last year. Oh yeah, and Belmont nearly beat us three years ago. Belmont would be the third best team in the ACC from what I’ve seen. Good team.

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