Joe Paterno’s Defenders Aren’t Crazy, Just Blind. Here’s How They Got That Way.

An interesting thing to do in the central Pennsylvania college town where I live and work is to walk around the town and campus and make a list of all the things that remind you of the recently deceased football coach. These include but are not limited to: Joegies, the sandwich shop in the student union; the pizza places and other local businesses that have "JOE" or "JOPA" worked into their phone numbers; the "Joe Papaya" smoothie at the bagel shop on College Avenue; the "Joe Knows" t-shirts and life-sized cardboard cutouts that have been on sale for decades in downtown shops, along with more recent additions like the "Thank You, Joe" t-shirts and the embroidered Paterno Legacy Pillow. And this doesn't even touch on the most obvious stuff, like the campus creamery with its top-selling Peachy Paterno, the library with his name on it, and the bronze likeness of the coach frozen in mid-stride outside Beaver Stadium.

What's interesting is to make this list, and then imagine all these things being gone.

The point was made when he died last winter that arguably no single person had ever had as great an impact on a major university—not a football program, but the entire institution—as Joe Paterno had on Penn State. Erasing his name and image from this town would be an impossible feat, both physically and emotionally.

If you are by any definition a "Penn Stater"—and I am: an alum, a football season ticket holder, and a university employee—these past eight months have been horribly surreal, and more than a little personal. For the rest of the world, it's just been a Really Big Story. I'm writing this piece for Deadspin (anonymously, because speaking bluntly about all this while on the university payroll doesn't seem the best way to keep my job and feed my kid) largely because it's Deadspin, where sport's biggest shitheads go to get the scorn they deserve. Certainly there's no bigger shithead in the history of American sports than Jerry Sandusky, and plenty of other characters in this saga have played the villain to varying degrees. Of the peripheral bad guys, Paterno is the only one whose culpability and legacy matter to anyone other than lawyers, prosecutors, and their own friends and family. I imagine Paterno is the only reason most people are still paying attention.

I'm not here to defend Paterno, nor really to defend anyone at all. But on the eve of the release of the Freeh report—which promises to be a scorched-earth review of Penn State's handling of the Sandusky matter—I'm compelled to try to explain why it is that so many of "us" seem like cultists, or at least delusional loyalists to a benevolent dictator who it turned out was only benevolent when it suited him. Some percentage is delusional, of course, though I'd argue it's no greater share than in any segment of society. I'm making the case for the overwhelming majority of Penn State fans and alumni, many of whom have made themselves look like fools over these past eight months with maudlin arguments in Paterno's defense. Most aren't fools, and no one I know is a conscious apologist for a guy who appears to have been covering for a child rapist. They're simply stuck somewhere in the first two stages of grief, unable to grasp the apparent truth, livid at a larger world that berates them for ignoring what seems obvious to everyone else.

For what it's worth, I don't group myself with this majority. I made my way through Kübler-Ross months ago. Still, I know where these people are coming from. The sense of denial—and the sense of sadness—remains fresh.

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So what's wrong with these people? The easy answer is that they—we—bought into a lie, giving unconditional loyalty to a man whose boring but undeniable on-field success, whose lip service paid to academics, whose financial largess fooled us all into thinking he was unique. Granted absolute trust and unparalleled power, he abused both in ways large and small. We all know now where that led, and we're exposed as the worst sort of suckers for ever buying in.

Actual explanations are rarely so easy, and this one is no exception. For decades, there weren't any obvious reasons to think this was a lie. The academic commitment wasn't lip service, and Paterno was unique among big-time football coaches. Yes, he had immense power, but he seemed to wield it in all the right ways. His teams won; his players graduated; the money flowed in; and the university grew. Only in the last decade or so were there blatant reasons for skepticism—but inevitably, those were outweighed in the collective Penn State consciousness by the nearly four decades that had come before.

Joe Paterno inherited a good but (nationally, at least) irrelevant football program in 1966 and quickly turned it into one of the best in the country, his teams putting together back-to-back 11-0 seasons in '68 and '69. He won at least 11 games in a season in five different decades—one of his many marks that will never be touched by another college football coach.

Joe Paterno’s Defenders Aren’t Crazy, Just Blind. Here’s How They Got That Way.

The winning made fans, but the method made disciples. Paterno was different. He could preach loyalty because he never left, despite numerous NFL offers. He could preach academics because his players graduated at a higher level than they did at nearly any other Top 25 program, because he endowed a chair in the English department, and because of the millions he dumped into the library that bears his family name. He could preach family because so many of the guys he coached in the '60s and '70s and '80s sent their sons to play for him in the '90s and '00s later. He could preach integrity because, well, it just seemed to fit. And because he made the football program in his image, and because the football team's success was invaluable to and inseparable from the university's growth, there was a sense that he sort of made the university in his image, too.

And, truly, nobody seemed to think this was a bad idea.

All of that was macro; it's impossible to calculate how much goodwill Paterno built student by student, faculty member by faculty member, alum by alum, but that's part of it, too. Probably half the people I work with or knew in school have a JoePa story, of meeting him at some event, of bumping into him on campus or at the grocery store or on a walk around the golf course. They're all wonderful stories, Paterno inevitably gracious and funny and quick. He could work a roomful of donors or a recruit's parents with equal ease, and with similarly impressive results.

The point is that, for most of his career, you had to look really, really hard for reasons not to love and respect the guy, for reasons not to want to proudly claim him as your leader, the representative of everything good you thought your team and school were, even if you weren't all that into football. Yes, Phil Knight and a bunch of former players spoke at his memorial service, but so did the dean of the liberal arts school and a kid from the honors college.

And if it got harder to ignore his flaws and failings in recent years, well, he'd been here so long and accumulated so much personal capital that it was easy to excuse his stumbles as inconsequential compared to his triumphs. He was too frail to get out on the road and recruit? Not ideal, but how many kids came to Penn State just for the chance to have this guy yell at them? He was out of touch, and too many of his players were getting into trouble off the field? Hey, kids today. Sign of the times.

We were hardly alone in all this. I was in Tuscaloosa a couple years ago when Paterno took his team down to get beat up by Saban's squad, and I lost track of how many Bama fans volunteered their admiration for Paterno. The media helped, too. In the summer of '08 after a long, embarrassing run of player arrests and citations, Paterno got the Outside the Lines treatment. It was brutal. He had never looked so ugly, so defensive, so unlike everything he was supposed to be. The overwhelming reaction from Penn State fans? He was bullied by ESPN, and they were mostly minor legal scrapes anyway.

Four months later, the same family of networks put together this weepy lifetime achievement video before Penn State's game against Ohio State. What had changed? Nothing, other than the Nittany Lions were 8-0. Just that quick, Joe the cranky, dismissive, out-of-touch hypocrite was forgotten, and JoePa the beloved football grandpa of America was back in charge.

And so you had a man who was able to survive a final decade of teams that were bad as often as they were good (and were often painful to watch even when they were competitive), and whose players increasingly mocked all he allegedly stood for with their off-field behavior. And all of this was documented and out in the open, as was the tale of the university president and athletic director—his bosses, technically—going to his house a quarter mile off campus in 2004 and telling Paterno, hey, maybe it was time to call it a day, and Paterno essentially kicking the kids off his lawn, and his team coming out that next season and going 11-1. It all became part of the legend, and really, almost no one, here or anywhere else, pointed to the red flags flickering in the Happy Valley breeze and asked: If this guy can get away with this, what else can he get away with?

After the Freeh report comes out, chances are we'll know what exactly Joe Paterno got away with. Given what's already been leaked, it's hard to imagine there will be anything more directly incriminating of Paterno than what we've already seen. If so, some number of my fellow fans and alumni will decide that whatever those old emails say, it's not enough for them to change their opinion of this man they loved and felt they knew. Short of turning up a memo, written in his handwriting on personalized letterhead and stamped by a notary public, saying, "Hey, Graham and Tim, I'm OK with Jerry raping little boys as long as it doesn't make the press," the Freeh report will likely leave a lot of Penn State minds unchanged.

* * *

Me, I'm too far gone for that myself, but I also know I'm not immune to the lifetime of conditioning. I've worked out in my head what feels like a rational explanation for things, something that allows me to pass by the storefront windows with the t-shirts and cardboard cutouts and even those fucking pillows and see something other than evil. Because I don't believe that Joe Paterno was.

I think Paterno came to Penn State with a vision for how he wanted to coach, and I think the fact that he managed to succeed wildly on his terms, and for so long, made it seem natural that his way was the best way to do things. And of course this is simultaneously logical and dangerous. I think the longer he was here, and the bigger his program and his university got, the more difficult it became to imagine any other way of doing things at all. And then, a decade or so from the end, when his way did finally start to seem imperfect, and a literal life's work seemed at risk of tarnishing, I think his judgment started to falter. I think he made bad decisions because he didn't want to fuck up this great thing he had built.

The catch being that the greatness of the thing he'd built kept most of us from ever questioning him. The fact that he seemed to have lived up to his own lofty standards for so long made it virtually impossible for us to question him when those standards were abandoned. Benevolent dictators, we've been reminded, are dictators nonetheless.

Most of Paterno's late-career failings didn't have serious consequences. He didn't keep tabs on his players as closely as he once had. He didn't leave town nearly as often to recruit. He didn't look critically enough at his staff, his weight-training program, or his coaching philosophy. I think all of that is unfortunate, and it's why I wish he'd retired years ago. But it's not what matters.

Ultimately, I don't think he consciously thought Jerry Sandusky was raping kids in the showers downstairs from his corner office. I really don't. I think he did what a lot of his supporters have done in the past eight months: I think he rationalized and fooled himself and hoped it would go away. He failed, horribly, and that personal failure was part of a systemic collapse in judgment and responsibility at the very top that allowed a monster to hunt and hurt children.

I don't think Paterno was a monster, only that he helped enable one. From the outside, I don't think the difference matters. For so many Penn Staters, it makes all the difference in the world. As long as he's not the monster, they can rationalize any new piece of information, hold it up against the icon they adored, the man they felt they knew, and make it look pitiful in comparison. They can let it blur into something uncertain, something impossible to prove. It's easier, and it feels better. It doesn't make them monsters, either.

"Terry Smyth" is a pseudonym for a 1990s Penn State graduate now employed at the school. He lives with his wife and child in State College.