Penn State tragedy: Barry Switzer says Joe Paterno had to go
Barry Switzer knew Joe Paterno's career could end only one way.
Once he saw the footage of the Penn State coach standing on his lawn, talking to reporters and admitting to the world that he should've done more, the former Oklahoma coach realized his fate was sealed. He would be forced out. He would be fired.
“I knew that it would come to this,” Switzer said.
It had to.
“They did the right thing at the university,” he said. “The university had to do this, and it was the right thing to do.”
He paused and sighed.
“It's a tragic, sad story. There are no winners here.”
He paused again.
“There are no winners at all.”
College athletics has never seen anything like what has unfolded this past week at Penn State. Heavens, sports has never seen anything worse. There has been no bigger scandal, no worse indignity. This goes beyond athletes trading memorabilia for tattoos or boosters taking recruits on ritzy harbor cruises or agents paying rent for a superstar's parents. This goes beyond trouble that has rocked Ohio State and Miami and USC and so many others. This even goes beyond the wild west days at Oklahoma.
Yes, those were ugly, awful times in Norman that forced Switzer out the door and embarrassed an entire state. But the details of what happened then don't make your skin crawl like the never ending news stream flowing these days from Happy Valley.
Ironically, it was Paterno who took aim at Switzer nearly three decades ago. He proclaimed that he wouldn't retire and “leave college football to the Jackie Sherrills and Barry Switzers of the world.” He quickly apologized to Switzer, and the two became friends in the years that followed.
Switzer even wrote extensively about Paterno in his book.
But no excuses — Paterno had to go.
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- Video: Berry Tramel: Who's Minding the Store? (2011-11-10)
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“Having been in this profession a long time and knowing how close coaching staffs are, I knew that this was a secret that was kept secret,” Switzer said. “Everyone on that staff had to have known, the ones that had been around a long time.”
Those are chilling words. They are the most disturbing missives, not in a week filled with heinous reports and atrocious news, but read again what Switzer said. Everyone had to have known.
If that doesn't cause a chill to run up your spin, nothing will.
“You think that a 13-year assistant … hasn't told someone else?” Switzer said. “His wife? His father? People knew. The community knew.”
He's right, of course. State College is like many college towns, big enough to have the diversity of a larger city but small enough to have the familiarity of a tinier town. It is an idyllic setting for many folks.
But everybody tends to know everybody's business.
Much like Norman where people knew there were problems with the Sooner program before players started shooting guns off the dorm balcony, people in State College had to know something was amiss with Jerry Sandusky.
“There are more people culpable than just Joe Paterno and the athletic director,” Switzer said via telephone while traveling in Texas. “There are so many other people that have thought, ‘I could've done something about this, too' that didn't come forward. That's the tragedy of it.”
That is the tragedy. The adults who had the power to protect kids from a monster. The adults who passed the buck and expected someone else to take care of the problem. The adults who could've saved at least eight little boys from carrying the scars of sexual abuse for the rest of their lives.
And among those adults is Paterno, the man who'd been seen as one of sports' most honorable coaches at one of college football's most upstanding programs.
“There's no university immune to this,” Switzer said. “No one is immune to what happened at Penn State or what happened at Oklahoma. It happened years ago, and it'll happen years in the future.
“People make poor decisions, poor choices, and this is what can occur.”
How can such powerful programs and commanding coaches lose control like this?
“I'll tell you how it happens — it's the American sports phenomenon,” Switzer said. “I've seen it happen all my life; we've made coaches and players and athletes more than what we are. It's what happens in American sports. Because of that, they've gotten away with more than they should have.
“These students the other night, I watched ‘em occupy State College, and I thought, ‘They don't understand.' If they stopped and thought about … how many people were involved and knew this and did nothing, they just haven't lived long enough.
“And what they've done is try to support somebody the university can't support.”
No one knows better than Switzer how difficult it is to be forced out of a job that you love from a program that you built at a university that you champion. But he also knows that there was no other conclusion for Paterno.
Joe had to go.