If it was a heavyweight battle then, I’m not sure what you’d call it now. But although the power struggle between the man labeled its leader and the man who enjoys that perception may appear inconsequential, it looms large over how the university has responded to the allegations that have shocked a nation.
Despite how guarded, how opaque, and how silent Penn State has been in this whole ordeal, it’s clear even to the students that this all boils down to a battle between Joe Paterno and Graham Spanier.
It was two weeks ago that I spoke with someone with inside knowledge of Penn State athletics. I had called the source trying to chase down one of the typical Paterno retirement rumors that spring up every now and again–little did either of us know that Penn State would be brought to its knees a fortnight later. But as yesterday’s developments started to unfold, I was reminded of that conversation.
And although the rumors of Paterno’s imminent departure were then dismissed out of hand, I did learn of a significant rift between Graham Spanier and Joe Paterno.
“Graham has a huge ego, and he would like nothing more than to be the one who replaces Joe Paterno,” I was told. “That’s something he feels like he has to do. He has to be the one.”
If Paterno and Spanier had been butting heads for months–years, even–the hazy situation before us becomes a little clearer. Now, it’s clear who was always in charge. Now, we know who really was the king of Penn State.
How else could you possibly explain Spanier refusing to say anything about his involvement in anything beyond a haphazard statement that professed his “unconditional support” of two men accused of covering up child rape, while leaving Paterno–ever his employee–to speak for the university at what was to be a nationally televised press conference?
And then how else could you possibly explain Spanier pulling the plug on even that?
Graham Spanier knew his silence would cause the media to key in on Paterno. Without anything else to latch on to, the focus would naturally gravitate to the biggest figure in the case. It was the coach of the football team left to answer for the failure of an administration, left to the wolves who were waiting to tear him limb from limb. And sure enough, it was Paterno who found himself at the center of every story–rather than relegated to the perimeter, as his actual involvement would have indicated. It was Paterno who found himself made a villain, portrayed as the “Worst Person in the World.” And so nobody paid any attention to the president behind the curtain, the man who was ultimately responsible for ensuring that Penn State didn’t ruin its reputation.
Spanier played them like a fiddle. Or better yet, he played them like a washboard.
But Tuesday, Joe Paterno was going to have his opportunity to tell his side of the story. And maybe that didn’t jive with the one that Spanier wanted to present–not that he’s presented much of one yet. And so, with as little warning as possible, and against the wishes of the coach, the president proved that he still had some authority.
It’s no secret that Joe Paterno hates those press conferences. He’s notoriously evasive, refusing to answer most questions directly, and dancing his way around even the least controversial of topics. But Tuesday’s was not to be just another press conference. We don’t know what he would have said. We don’t know whether the university-mandated focus on football would’ve been followed. But for the first time in years, maybe ever, Joe wanted to be in that room in front of more reporters than he could count.
Given his actions the rest of the day, that much seems obvious. If the reports are to be trusted, he was organizing an off-campus press conference at his home north of campus–only, likely, to have Spanier shut that one down, too. It’s probable that Paterno’s not allowed to speak without the consent of the university, and that’s not how he wants to go out, on a technicality like that.
Again breaking character, Paterno craved the attention last night, as hundreds of students came out to throw their support behind the coach–and, not coincidentally, to broadcast their disgust with Spanier. He spoke to the fans, to the cameras, just as he had earlier in the day. Then, surrounded by reporters, he expressed regret.
“I know you guys have a lot of questions. And I was hoping I was going to be able to answer them today,” Paterno said.
But Spanier just wouldn’t let him do that. He wouldn’t let Paterno have the last laugh. Even as the Board of Trustees meets today to decide Spanier’s fate, even as Spanier sees the writing on the wall, he just couldn’t let Paterno win.
Even if they were both going down, Graham Spanier wanted to outlast Paterno.