- The Washington Times - Friday, October 4, 2002

The Big Ten has had its share of scandals lately and the ongoing one involving the Michigan basketball booster is a doozy. So you'd think the conference would jump at the chance to Do the Right Thing and suspend Joe Paterno for his accosting of an official last week.

Well, think again. Rather than teach its athletes a valuable lesson (that certain behavior simply won't be tolerated), the Big Ten has decided to teach its athletes a rather dubious one (that some people are above the law).

And they have the nerve to call it higher education.

We all know the fine work indeed, history-making work that JoePa has done at Penn State. But nobody who grabs the jersey of a referee, under any circumstances, should get a free pass. Just like nobody who bets on a game (or, heaven forbid, throws one) should go unpunished. Respect for officials is one of the cornerstones of any sport, even when they may have missed a call. We're not talking about papal infallibility here, we're just talking about professional courtesy.

Paterno's remorselessness is typical of coaches in these situations. They just don't get it unless the whole world turns against them, that is. Then they begin to "understand." But the whole world isn't going to turn against the winningest coach in major college football history. And besides, his apologists point out, it's not as if he went and slugged somebody like Woody Hayes did.

"Why should I regret it?" Paterno said defiantly. "What did I do? All I did was try to stop him because he was running ahead of me. I was running to the locker room, I grabbed him by the shirt and I said, 'Hey, Dick [Honig], you had two lousy calls.' Not he, I said the two guys on the other side [of the field] had two lousy calls. I'm not allowed to do that?"

You're allowed in the Big Ten, apparently. But when Maryland coach Bobby Ross pulled the same stunt at Maryland in '86, the conference banned him from the sideline for a game a sentence that seems both fair and reasonable.

It's interesting to compare the two episodes, because they're almost identical. Ross, you may recall, was steamed because he thought North Carolina had gotten an extra timeout, one that enabled the Tar Heels to kick the game-winning field goal. So he raced across the field and collared literally referee Don Safrit, only to be restrained by a UNC campus cop.

As it turned out, Carolina hadn't been given an extra timeout. It was just a misunderstanding. But rather than admit he overreacted, Ross complained about the Terps getting "more than our share of bad calls" that season. He also claimed he was "not enraged" as he sprinted toward the referee, that he was in total control, though the replays shown over and over again in the days that followed suggested otherwise.

Soon enough, Ross was writing apologies and getting reprimanded by acting athletic director Charles Sturtz for causing "embarrassment" to the school and the conference. (And not long after that, Bobby was bolting Maryland for the Buffalo Bills and then Georgia Tech. Is there a connection between the two? Probably. A partial one, anyway.)

Two weeks later, Ross watched from the mezzanine level as the Terps tied Clemson. It was a pretty historic afternoon. That was also the game, you see, that the Tigers' Danny Ford was banished to the coaches' box for criticizing the officials after a last-second loss to the Terps the previous year (which led to a melee and the suspension of four of his players). Yup, there wasn't a head coach on either sideline that day. But the ACC made its point, and the conference's football coaches, it seems, listened. They've behaved much better since, don't you agree?

The Big Ten, however, has chosen not to punish Paterno. Why? Because it might affect his legacy? Since when is a coach's legacy more important than the integrity of the game? There are, as JoePa is well aware, other ways besides going bonkers to deal with suspect officials. A few seasons ago, for instance, an ACC crew botched a game between Clemson and N.C. State, but nobody raced after the referee afterward. Instead, the two schools took the matter up with the conference, and the crew was suspended for a game. That's how these complaints can and should be handled.

Once a game is over, it's over. No result is going to be reversed not even when one of the teams has been given a fifth down (see Colorado vs. Missouri, 1990). All Paterno succeeded in doing, with his mad dash, is looking like a 75-year-old coach who perhaps has stayed too long.

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