December 28, 2011

If SMU is indication, scandal will linger at Penn State for decades

This scandal will always be part of Penn State.

DALLAS -- Penn State defensive end Eric Latimore was 9 days old when SMU's football program received the "Death Penalty." As far as he is concerned, SMU football plays in Conference USA.

"I didn't know anything about it until I saw that thing on ESPN last year," Latimore said.

Latimore is referring to the ESPN 30 For 30 documentary, Pony Excess, which chronicled the SMU football program that, in the 1980s, redefined "lack of institutional control" for a generation of NCAA cheats.

Penn State is in town to play Houston in the TicketCity Bowl on Monday in the Cotton Bowl. Theirs is a level of lack of institutional control for which the NCAA has no guideline or precedent.

Using the private school about six miles from the team hotel as a point of reference, it's going to take 20 years before Penn State returns to just being Penn State.

Maybe less.

"I know there was a scandal there, but the only reason I know about it is because of that ESPN thing," Penn State center Matt Stankiewitch said. "I know they were good in the '80s."

In 20 years, no one who was born in the last few years will remember the human tragedy that was exposed this fall at State College. All they will know will come from a documentary, a book or archived news footage and stories.

It took SMU decades before its foremost descriptor was not the Death Penalty for its football team. Ask the people on The Hill in Dallas -- this kind of thing is every bit a part of a legacy as a national title banner, a thriving Greek life, a presidential library or anything else.

Compared to Penn State, what happened at SMU is nothing.

The sad part is that this scandal and cover-up by a small number of individuals has forever tarnished what had been a fine and upstanding state university.

What Jerry Sandusky, Joe Paterno, Mike McQueary and a few administrators did does not change the good that has come from Penn State, or what that community can and will produce. But nothing can alter the sad trajectory of this failed leadership.

This story will eventually fade and be replaced, but it will always be there.

The Penn State degree is no less valuable today than it was six months ago, but it comes with a story now that no one wants to be a part of.

Talking to a handful of Penn State players Wednesday afternoon at the Hyatt Regency, it was nearly impossible not to be both impressed by their words and their behavior, and to not feel badly for them.

Unlike the players at SMU who received side benefits that led directly to the school's punishment and stained reputation, none of these guys had any clue what was going on between the assistant coaches and the upper-level members of the school's administration.

"Here, you've got 120 great guys that are playing and going to class and doing everything they need to uphold the Penn State name. And then we got thrown this terrible, terrible trouble with this one guy...," running back Michael Zordich said. "Eighty percent of the team barely knows the guy."

Stankiewitch called this season "surreal," but that description feels inadequate.

For those who live beyond the boundaries of State College, Pa., the face of this story has been TV footage of a Sandusky interview, Paterno waving from his home, the riot or the moment of silence held between the Penn State and Nebraska football teams on Nov. 12.

When you meet these players, this historic tragedy takes on a living, breathing face, a personality and a humanity that no TV image can properly present.

"Coach Paterno was my head coach. [Former Penn State president] Graham Spanier was a professor of mine," Stankiewitch said. "Coach [Mike] McQueary was my recruiting coordinator. I know these guys. They are great people, and I can't believe all of this stuff happened.

"It's one of those things we weren't a part of it, and we don't want to be a part of it. Do I feel like we were cheated? Yeah, I do, but that comes with life."

This story is not over yet, and for everybody but those directly involved there will one day be closure.

The story, however, will forever remain a part of the Penn State legacy.

Mac Engel, 817-390-7697

Twitter: @MacEngelProf

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