Last-ditch effort to reframe Joe Paterno's legacy fizzles out

Dan Wetzel
Joe Paterno won more college football games than any other coach, until those wins were vacated because of the Sandusky scandal. (AP)

With fiery rhetoric from high-powered attorneys and surrogates such as a former Pennsylvania governor, four years ago the family of the late Joe Paterno announced they were suing the NCAA. The suit sought to overturn NCAA sanctions against Paterno’s old Nittany Lion football program. It was mostly about what the family deemed unfair and irreparable harm the NCAA inflicted on Paterno due to its use of the Freeh Report in leveling the penalties.

The Freeh Report, written by former FBI director Louis Freeh and commissioned by Penn State itself, took a harsh view of Paterno and others in allowing former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky to molest boys through the years.

Deemed a search for truth and a continuation of JoePa’s dying wish to investigate the case, the high-profile lawsuit was billed as the family fighting back against a rush to judgment that had cost Paterno his job and his reputation. He died of cancer at age 85 in January 2012, just months after being fired after 55 years as head coach, where he had won more games than anyone in college football history.

“An illegally imposed penalty that is based on false assumptions and secret discussions,” blasted Wick Sollers, the Paterno family attorney, upon filing the suit. It was further backed by members of the Penn State Board of Trustees and other prominent community members, including former Gov. Dick Thornburg.

Sollers said the case demanded “meticulous review.”

After four years of presumably just that level of review, the case came to an abrupt conclusion. The family voluntarily filed a motion in Centre County Court Friday to discontinue the case “with prejudice,” meaning it’s over for good.

There was no settlement here. There were no considerations. This was a one-sided decision. After all this time, the family just gave up on this avenue. The NCAA was still muscled up for a fight. The timing wasn’t a coincidence. Plaintiff attorneys were facing a Friday afternoon deadline to file its discovery that backed up its claims on the case.

Instead they quit.

Whatever truth the Paternos hoped to shine on the situation never materialized. Instead the news of the retreat was buried late on a Friday before a holiday weekend.

The NCAA immediately declared “total victory.” It then put the family and its lawsuit on blast with a level of pent-up vitriol uncommon for the Association.

“The Paterno family characterized this case as a ‘search for the truth,’ ” Donald Remy, the NCAA’s chief legal officer, said in the statement. “Its decision today, after years of investigation and discovery, to abandon its lawsuit rather than subject those facts to courtroom examination is telling.

“We believe that the powerful record developed during discovery overwhelmingly confirmed what the NCAA has believed all along: the NCAA acted reasonable in adopting conclusion of an eight-month investigation by Louis Freeh,” Remy continued.

This turn of events represents another bitter and humiliating chapter in this story for Paterno supporters. They have long slammed the Freeh report as overly conclusive and inconsistent – little more than a predetermined blame game in search of the flimsiest of proof. There was a measure of merit to the claim, as Freeh took leaps of logic to make conclusions that could certainly, at the very least, be debated.

As such, there was long held hope among Paterno supporters that this lawsuit would cause the 267-page Freeh Report to come under continued assault, eventually leading to the softening of public opinion against Paterno. The ultimate goal was complete vindication and the return of a statue honoring the coach outside Beaver Stadium.

Previously, the NCAA had walked back heavy sanctions against the football team, all but conceding it went too far in its initial decision.

Other than that, though, there has been little success to be found in the courts for the pro-Paterno and pro-Sandusky factions. Be it criminal or civil, be it decision by jury or judge, almost everything has gone against the Paternos.

Sandusky was sentenced to up to 60 years in prison in 2012 after being found guilty of 45 counts of sexual molestation. Three Penn State administrators – former president Graham Spanier, vice president Gary Schultz and athletic director Tim Curley – were sentenced this spring to spend months behind bars for their failures in the case.

Former grad assistant Mike McQueary, a villain to the pro-Paterno people, meanwhile won a whistle blower lawsuit against the school for his wrongful firing. He was awarded $7.3 million. Additionally, the school’s civil suit against an insurer led to even more brutal headlines, as uncorroborated allegations of additional abuse were revealed that painted Paterno and Penn State in even worse light.

In the swirl after the scandal hit, causing Paterno’s once glowing career to end in controversy, there was a belief from those loyal to him that eventually the cool and calm of the court system would deliver vindication.

Perhaps nothing was more important to achieving that than Paterno v. NCAA. It promised to be an intriguing battle between a once beloved and respected coach who spent his life promoting the ideals of college athletics against the central organization of college athletics itself. Both sides had resources, patience and seemingly endless resolve. Fireworks were expected.

“This matter will never be resolved until the full facts are reviewed in a lawful and transparent manner,” Sollers, the Paterno attorney, said at the outset.

On Friday that review ended. In like a (Nittany) Lion, out with a whimper.

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