We’ll never forget that line last March, as the Ohio State football program was unraveling, when president E. Gordon Gee was asked about possibly firing Jim Tressel. “Are you kidding?” he said. “I’m just hopeful that the coach doesn’t dismiss me.”
Tressel was getting reverential treatment after a mere 10 years at Ohio State. But he would’ve been a peon at Penn State compared to the great and mighty Joe Paterno, who became the Nittany Lions’ coach when Lyndon B. Johnson was in the White House. JoePa acquired so much sovereignty over the ensuing four decades, he was nearly impossible to get rid of until the current child-abuse scandal swept him out.
Hero worship of virtually mythic coaches is a valid criticism of big-time college sports. It’s an example of the skewed priorities that help create the problems plaguing schools and athletic departments.
The reaction from some Paterno supporters and Penn State sycophants was disturbing, whether you call it a riot or unrest. Protesters flipped over a news van, tore down lampposts and threw rocks and cans, prompting police to respond with riot gear and tear gas.
Students at Indiana University were just as angry in 2000, but not quite as violent, when Bobby Knight was (finally) fired for boorish behavior during a 29-year run. Protesters knocked over light poles and burned effigies, including one of president Myles Brand near his on-campus home.
This isn’t to suggest that longtime, larger-than-life coaches are destined to go down in scandal-laced flames like Woody Hayes (23 years at Ohio State) or Lefty Driesell (17 years at Maryland). Dean Smith was known for running a clean program during his 36 years as men’s basketball coach at North Carolina and then left on his own accord. Frank Beamer has spent 25 seasons at the helm of Virginia Tech’s football program with nary a hint of trouble.
Like Beamer, Paterno also had steered clear of controversy, which is fairly remarkable for national powerhouse programs. But if the right combination of wrong circumstances comes up, no coach is bigger than his program or school.
As much as Mike Krzyzewski is associated with Duke basketball entering his 32nd season, he’s not equivalent to Duke basketball or Duke itself. He can — and should — be bounced quickly if an egregious-enough scandal erupts on his watch.
The students who took to the streets Wednesday night in State College, Pa., seem to miss the point of college athletics, though it’s not entirely their fault. They’ve definitely received mixed messages from the grown-ups in administration, business, media and government.
If the students have difficulty keeping college sports in proper perspective, it’s because that learned behavior has been passed down.
Despite making $50 million for Penn State in the 2009-10 season, football is still an extracurricular activity. A very profitable one, yes, and one that earns the school a ton of free advertising. But the enterprise remains secondary to Penn State’s core mission, which is education.
The football team comprises a fraction of the campus’ total enrollment (44,000). The rest of the student body — faceless, anonymous and generating little revenue by comparison — is actually the more important constituency.
Yet we keep getting it twisted because we always see the coaches and players on TV, not the chem majors and associate professors. So the tail wags the dog, leaving us with college administrators who fear their bigfoot coaches while students and fans genuflect before them.
Part of the problem is innate, a byproduct of the student-teacher dynamic in college. Young men and women arrive on campus, ready to be molded, and the most popular professors/coaches take on an avuncular nature. If they stick around long enough, these instructors become legendary, viewed even more favorably (and protectively) by students who weren’t even born when the tenure began.