When Nikita Khrushchev addressed his fellow Soviets in 1953 following his succession to leadership of the USSR, he delivered what would become known as “the Secret Speech”. Its content sought to unveil his predecessor, Josef Stalin, the mass murderer and ruthless dictator that had maintained public opinion steadily in favor of him, whether by appeal or fear. These methods were captured in the phrase “cult of personality”. Despite Stalin’s horrendous acts (many of which Khrushchev still refused to condemn, as he would need the same actions to retain power) the Russian people continued to veritably worship their leader, something which Khrushchev needed to correct both to fall in line with Party ideology and lead effectively.
Joe Paterno has forged a similar cult at State College for over sixty years. This past week, the curtain has been pulled back. The king is dead.
While Paterno did not doctor photos, order assassinations of rivals, or produce propaganda to keep his job as head coach and de facto autocrat of the small Pennsylvania town, he used his aw-shucks demeanor and commitment to worthy ideals to centralize his authority and mold the football program, in an already tight-knit community, into a fortress. Football coaches across the country have long sought the personality cult that “Joe Pa” crafted for Penn State football. The Nittany Lions were embodied in him so completely that the surreal scenes of students rioting in State College ought come as no surprise.
Jerry Sandusky’s disgusting and unconscionable tale has already been recounted many times, and I have no desire to go into that again. What remains is the fallout.
Before late Wednesday night it appeared that while the university president and athletic director would be immediately removed, the coaching legend would be allowed to retire in a relative amount of style. Before late Wednesday night, he would coach his final home game Saturday and continue leading his team in oblivion towards winning the Leaders division, to the B1G championship game, and yet another bowl. Before late Wednesday, the person ultimately morally responsible for the actions of the football program at Penn State would retain (albeit for a time) at least titular, and as I suspect, quite tangible control of the program.
The board of trustees’ choice to depose Paterno is obviously the right one, and they should be commended for it. The backlash in State College from disgruntled students and bewildered players is amplified by the thousands of PSU alums voicing their support for Paterno on the internet. And it is absolutely despicable, yet absolutely understandable.
When a person of such lauded moral high ground as Paterno fails, it shocks the world, and too often appalls little. Regardless of your metaphysical and religious views, the fact is that any human can and often will fail. It’s cases where the failure shreds the work of a lifetime into scraps of what legacy had previously been taken for granted. The risk of embodiment of a football program in one person, from Paterno to Wooden to Krzyzewski to, dare I say, Schembechler, is inherently risky. Trusting the ruler to tread flawlessly always is what we expect is impossible. Everyone does make mistakes (insert Terrelle Pryor joke here). It’s the degree and management of these mistakes that separates the legends from the ordinary.
And of those names I just dropped, one clearly does not belong with the others any more. Its time to destroy Paterno’s cult of personality. The victims cry for justice and PSU students would rather “demonstrate” outside their leader’s home, rather than look the harsh realities in the face as Khrushchev did. It’s easier that way, but it’s also wrong.
P.S. I am not a Communist nor do I think Khrushchev is by any means a stellar person. Just wanted to illustrate the most prominent reference of the term. Nor are Stalin and Paterno equivalents. Their followers have acted in a similar manner.