John Feinstein: The coaching lesson of Penn State
When the University of North Carolina wanted to name its new arena after basketball coach Dean Smith in 1986, Smith objected, saying that arenas shouldn't be named for coaches. He was talked into it by university officials, who said that it was what most alumni wanted. Smith has lived an exemplary life, but he was right: When you put someone's name on a building, you immortalize him.
The living shouldn't be immortalized. Joe Paterno was proof of that.
The report by former FBI director Louis Freeh on the Penn State scandal that rocked all of college athletics confirmed, as many feared, that Paterno, Penn State's Hall of Fame football coach, who had an NCAA Division I record 409 victories, was guilty of concealing the accusations of rape and child molestation made against his former assistant, Jerry Sandusky.
The Freeh report makes clear that those who rioted after Paterno was fired last year should be even more ashamed of themselves now. Paterno's legacy is no longer stained or tarnished — it is destroyed. Regardless of how many good things he did during his 62 years as a Penn State employee, the tragedy that he failed to stop overwhelms all the good he did.
But this tragedy should do something else, too: remind everyone involved in college athletics that no coach, regardless of how many games he wins, how many players he graduates or how much money he raises for the university should be allowed to have the absolute power that Paterno wielded. Absolute power doesn't always corrupt absolutely, but it absolutely can corrupt.
Penn State certainly isn't the only school where a coach is the most powerful figure. Years ago, the president of the University of Oklahoma commented — perhaps half-jokingly — that he hoped to build a university worthy of the football program. Two years ago, when Ohio State's football team was being investigated for multiple NCAA violations, President Gordon Gee was asked whether he had considered firing Coach Jim Tressel. “Fire him?” Gee responded. “I just hope he doesn't fire me.”
That's called kidding on the square. Only after it became clear that Tressel had been aware of many of the violations and covered them up was he finally removed. Even then, he was allowed to “resign.”
Coaches who win championships are huge moneymakers for their schools. Winning teams lead to more admissions applications and, far more important, massive contributions from alumni and boosters. Whenever Duke University mounts a major fundraising campaign, the centerpiece is men's basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has won four national championships and is the winningest coach in men's college basketball history.
Krzyzewski's off-court record is at least as laudable as his on-court record. Virtually all of his players graduate, and he has raised countless dollars for various charitable causes as well as Duke.
That's fine. But no college coach should be placed on the pedestal that Paterno was put on at Penn State. That pedestal is what prevented then-President Graham Spanier from stepping up in 2001, when a graduate assistant coach told Paterno that he had seen Sandusky in a university shower sexually assaulting a 10-year-old boy. Instead of ruling that the only option was to notify authorities, Spanier and the university's athletic director allowed Paterno to dictate the school's course of action — which was no action at all.
Many, if not most, iconic coaches are accorded that status merely because they win. Kentucky men's basketball coach John Calipari has built his national championship program around players who turn pro after one year in college. He's not the only coach who recruits such “one-and-dones”; he just does it better than anyone. Calipari is easily the most powerful man in Kentucky. Very few people who follow Kentucky basketball care whether any of Calipari's players graduate. That will be the case as long as his teams continue to contend regularly for the national championship.
That shouldn't be true anywhere, but it is true almost everywhere, especially those places where a coach has won for many years.
College presidents love to talk about the importance of academics and refer to football and basketball players as “student-athletes.” They set themselves up as bastions of righteousness even as they let coaches run amok in the name of winning games and making money.
This is an opportunity for presidents to do something other than preen. They should take steps to ensure that no coach can ever again have the absolute power Paterno wielded. They should stop giving coaches multimillion-dollar contracts. They should stop building statues and naming stadiums, arenas and basketball courts for them — especially while the coaches are still active. They should also stop asking them to raise funds. Tell them to coach their teams and try to see to it that their players graduate. Period.
John Feinstein is a contributor to The Washington Post and the author of 29 books, most recently “Rush for the Gold: Mystery at the Olympics.”
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