- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 9, 2011

STATE COLLEGE, PA. (AP) - Once the question no longer was if Joe must go, but when, someone had to have the guts to make the call. Because nobody else would, Paterno did. He said he wanted to see this through to the bitter end _ of the season, anyway _ and dared the Penn State board of trustees to stop him.

They won’t.

Nor should they.

Like everything else in this still-evolving mess, Paterno’s acknowledgment that he shared plenty of responsibility for it came way too late. Fashioning a graceful exit is Paterno’s only chance to prove it and he’s earned that right. Mock the sincerity of the statement he released Wednesday morning if you want:

“It is one of the great sorrows of my life,” it said. “With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.” Just remember, he’s still the only person in a position of authority at the school to take even that small step so far.

Two of his superiors, charged with covering up a 2002 incident that Paterno reported and prosecutors allege was part of former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s serial child sex abuse, have their lawyers sifting through technicalities for ways to keep them out of jail. Penn State President Graham Spanier, rumored to be on his way out the door any minute now, has said little in public beyond expressing support for the same two administrators.

Little about sports is truly ironic, but this may be: The same old-school qualities that made Paterno the most celebrated coach of his era until last weekend _ a steadfast refusal to change with the times _ also made it possible to avert his eyes to the very real harm carried out right under his gaze. As he and the university are learning to their enduring regret, blind loyalty often comes with a steep price.

So does maintaining a very public profile for that matter, something that Paterno’s decision guarantees. The Nittany Lions play Nebraska at home Saturday, travel to Ohio State and then Wisconsin to close out the regular season. A spot in the Big Ten Championship game Dec 3 remains a very real possibility and even a bowl game after that.

“My goals now are to keep my commitments to my players and staff and finish the season with dignity and determination,” Paterno said in the statement. “And then I will spend the rest of my life doing everything I can to help this university.”

You could make the argument that stepping away now would help the university more than all Paterno’s past deeds combined. Indeed, he might come to the same decision himself after the Nebraska game, either discouraged by how his players respond to the burden of so much attention or shamed by the way he’s received. If Paterno continues to coach after that game, his job could actually get easier. For all the frenzied reaction his presence will invite on the road, the Nittany Lions have gone into plenty of towns already familiar with being cast in the role of villains.

People who think Paterno isn’t up to the dare don’t know Joe. His decision to retire at the end of the season was not just stubborn, it was a challenge to board members who want him out immediately. One line in particular from his statement read like Paterno jamming his finger in the board’s eye:

“At this moment the board of trustees should not spend a single minute discussing my status. They have far more important matters to address.”

He’s right. Undeniably so. Yet the measure of a man is not just what he says, but what he does.

“He’s put a lot of time in and a lot of effort and I believe he deserves it,” said Anthony Adams, current Chicago Bear and former Penn State defender.

“He used to always say different stuff if you were late to a meeting. In college there were 120-something different student athletes. If you were late, `You’re not a minute late, you’re 120 minutes late, because you just took a minute from every player that we have on the team.’

“At the time you’re just going, `Why you keep naggin’ and naggin’?’ ” Adams said. “But, I mean, you don’t realize the type of impact they have on your life until you leave.”

Paterno won’t be in the only job he ever wanted much longer. But it’s not too late to leave one more lesson behind.


Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org. Follow him at https://Twitter.com/JimLitke.

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