Last Friday, I talked to Tom Osborne about Joe Paterno, about how long old legends should stay in the saddle, about when it's the right time to say goodbye.
That seems like five months ago.
I called Osborne back Tuesday to see if he wanted to comment on the current Paterno saga.
He declined. I understand.
Osborne was one of the lucky ones. He got out with the parade and the applause. There are few graceful exits and happy endings anymore. Woody Hayes punched a linebacker. Bobby Knight was fired at Indiana for snapping at a college kid. Jim Tressel was caught lying to the NCAA. Bobby Bowden was forced out.
Paterno's exit might be the ugliest in sports history.
Nebraska is in the middle of this. It's a surreal feeling. The Huskers are trying to win a game, a big game. The shape of Bo Pelini's fourth year rides on the next three games.
But on Saturday, they are going to be on the sideline opposite history or a train wreck — or both.
Will Paterno be on that sideline for the last time? Will he be fired by then? Will there be an interim coach? How will the Nittany Lions play if Paterno's there? What if he's not?
Imagine being Pelini or a Nebraska player, looking at this every day, trying to scout not only an opponent but gauge a combustible situation that could blow at any second.
It doesn't really matter.
Joe should go now. Joe should get the last three games. Fine. Whatever. He's gone now. That became obvious Tuesday, a day when press conferences were canceled and one was held at Joe's house. It was a day when nobody really said a word, and the silence was deafening.
It's over for Paterno. He might be gone by Friday. He might be gone in three weeks.
At this point, who cares when it happens?
But then came the symbolism debates. And everyone played along.
If you keep Paterno around for three more weeks, you're showing the world that football still matters. Can him now, and you can puff out your chest and say you care, you really care.
What about the game? Shouldn't Penn State forfeit? Do fans really want to be there? Does anybody feel like cheering?
What if Paterno coaches? Wouldn't it be awkward? Wouldn't you be sending the wrong message?
What if mammoth Beaver Stadium is half full? What if it's full of zombies not knowing how to act?
What if they cheer and give Joe a standing ovation? Won't the world gasp in horror?
But if you forfeit the game, then you're hurting innocent players, who had nothing to do with this mess. You also give Nebraska an unfair edge in the Big Ten race. Might as well forfeit all three remaining games.
If you play, aren't you saying that football is still king? Wouldn't a better message be that the school isn't about football?
I've got news for you: Penn State is about football. So are a lot of universities. Firing Paterno today and forfeiting the game won't change that.
It won't even cleanse one soul or conscience.
Yeah, it's wild now. This is the all-time story, the national scribes are saying. St. Joe Paterno, an icon being burned at the stake in public. Everyone's coming to State College, Pa., to tell the tale. Read all about it.
There was real outrage Tuesday, at 140 characters or less on Twitter. Penn State canceled Paterno's weekly press conference. His son said that he wanted to talk, wanted to answer questions. Paterno ended up shouting some things to the media from his window. Say a prayer for the victims, something like that.
You wanted to wonder why a guy like Paterno, who has run that school for decades, couldn't just hold a press conference whenever and wherever he wanted without anyone's permission if it meant that much. But then you wondered if it really meant that much to him.
It doesn't matter, except for one thing.
It would be nice — and very appropriate — for Paterno to address this topic, on his own. We don't need to worry about his legacy or football games. We need to hear Paterno give us some straight talk, for as long as it takes, on what he knew and when he knew it and what in heaven's name kept him from saying anything all these years.
There wouldn't even have to be questions at this press conference. Paterno would know what the questions were. Just tell us everything.
And Paterno could apologize for his role in this, and talk about the victims. He should address them. He has coached so many young men in 46 years, he's been Papa Lion. He's changed so many lives. I'd like to hear him talk about the other lives he may have helped change.
It's easy to get lost in this story, and all its sanctimonious layers. But really, in essence, a man's career and a football game are not the story here.
The story is of the young men, and the number reportedly is up to 20 now, whose lives, psyches, futures, were affected.
They are the courageous, faceless forgotten in this saga. The alleged acts forced upon them are so unspeakable that it's hard to get through the grand jury report. It's a lot easier to focus on the football, the coach, the mob scene.
What if they could become the focus?
What if there not only was a game Saturday, but fans brought banners and signs to support the victims and call attention to the website rainn.org (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network), the nation's largest anti-sexual abuse organization?
What if Paterno called attention to this cause on his way out?
What if the administrators at Penn State, who figure to get cleaned out, from Graham Spanier on down, pledged to donate the revenue from Saturday's game to the victims in the Jerry Sandusky case? What if the school could start a program to aid the fight against sexual abuse?
It wouldn't change what happened. Just like firing Paterno now or later won't. Or whether this game is played. Nothing can change the victims' lives, unless you can build a time machine and go back to 2002, or even further, to when Sandusky's first alleged crime happened.
But for once, you could take the spotlight and the angst and the concern and shine it where it truly belongs.
Now that would matter.
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