The disturbing details in Penn State’s child sexual-abuse scandal have tested most people’s credulity.
Still, even after all that, the notion that Joe Paterno might have coached the Miami Hurricanes — the sport’s goody black shoes aligned with its notorious black hats — seems ludicrous.
But that almost happened in 1995, when the very existence of Miami’s scandal-scarred program was threatened by front-page revelations that players had been falsifying Pell Grant applications.
With Miami facing sanctions and investigations, a search committee charged with replacing fired coach Dennis Erickson and determined to alter a renegade football culture contacted Paterno.
The Penn State coach, then 68, admitted he was tempted, and he tried to arrange a meeting at that year’s Super Bowl in Miami. But the committee wanted to act quickly and, in a move now fraught with irony, turned next to Jim Tressel, recently fired in the controversy at Ohio State, before settling on Dallas Cowboys assistant Butch Davis.
Now, given the disturbing nature of Penn State’s mess, those Hurricanes don’t look nearly so bad, Paterno not nearly so pure. And the Nittany Lions, despite all their historic distaste for Miami football, might be wise to emulate that university’s post-scandal response.
Like Miami then, Penn State football is at a major crossroads, its image tarred by a major disgrace. And, as was the case 16 years ago, its future will be impacted by its new coach and the search committee that will select him.
Whomever the Penn State panel eventually chooses, the speed and thoughtfulness with which it does so, the changes the university administrators demand, and the ground rules they lay down could shape the face of Penn State football for decades.
At Miami, Davis provided a rare six-year calm. He took a disreputable program in disarray and provided both on-field success (a record of 51-20 from 1995 to 2000) and off-the-field serenity.
That hiring process was focused, thorough, and took just 12 days. Nearly 30 people were interviewed in one intense two-day stretch by a group determined to change the status quo.
But while Penn State’s mission also will require focus and thoroughness, it’s difficult to envision a similarly speedy decision.
Acting Penn State president Rodney Erickson, who termed the search “wide open,” said last week that he’d like to have a new coach before the Nittany Lions play in a bowl game. Penn State, whose bowl bid is expected to be for a game in late December or on Jan. 2, will learn its bowl fate today.
What seems likely to slow the Happy Valley search, though, is an apparent conflict between a need for haste and a need for a thorough reassessment of the program Paterno headed for 46 years before being fired last month.
Since the panel includes just one person — acting athletic director Dave Joyner — with football connections, it likely will need time to familiarize itself with the current coaching environment, one in which Paterno’s replacement figures to be paid three or four times the $1 million the old coach earned.
Plus, major changes in the football program apparently are on the table.