Joe Paterno and his wife Susan stand on their porch to thank well-wishers gathered outside in State College, Pa., Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011. The Penn State board of trustees fired Paterno as football coach earlier Wednesday. The board also fired university president Graham Spanier. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
What's happening at Penn State right now is what happens when you decide to make a football coach more than a football coach.
Read virtually any profile of Joe Paterno this week, you get the sense that Paterno was some kind of benevolent, eight-armed sentry God sent to watch over a wide swath of Central Pennsylvania. Language like this isn't uncommon:
Being accepted to Penn State felt like a family, and Joe Paterno was the father.
From John Wooden to Bob Knight to Coach K to Paterno, we have built up an irrational image of who college coaches are and what they're capable of doing.
They don't just teach you how to block or tackle. No, no. They teach you how to be a MAN. They build entire communities with one forceful blow of a whistle. They shape. They mold. They cobble together future leaders using only clay and bits of leaves.
All of this is a myth, of course: a grand illusion that sports writers eat up and that the NCAA -- which for so long has looked down upon its athletes as lost souls in dire need of stern guidance -- is more than happy to propagate. The illusion of the college coaching God goes hand-in-hand with the illusion of amateurism, that somehow a college coach's job is more pure of heart than that of a professional coach.
That's a lie. A coach is just a coach, and to expect one man to serve as an effective father figure to 80 or 90 young men on an annual basis is both unreasonable and naive. The truth is, we need to treat college coaches the way we do professional coaches.
That is to say, we need to treat them like mercenaries. Look at Bill Belichick. No one has any illusions about Bill Belichick's ability to be a role model to young men. He's gruff. He's anti-social. He's admired almost solely from a football perspective, and that's how it should be. By evaluating a coach strictly by wins and losses, we take away the chance for him to become some kind of deified nutjob (see: Dungy, Tony).
This goes against the sanctimonious way that college sports are presented to Americans. We're supposed to think that college programs aren't all about wins and losses, and that things like graduation rates are REALLY the most important thing, or at least should be. They're not.
Once we start assigning responsibilities beyond winning games to coaches, we enter a pretend moral high ground that doesn't exist for mortal men. Paterno's case should prove that descriptors like "classy" and "does things the right way" are nonsensical and impossible to truly ascertain. It's just branding. The cult of amateurism is what causes a school like Penn State to elevate Joe Paterno from mere coach to unofficial saint. And no man is a saint. Human beings aren't that simple.
So if schools want to avoid the kind of institutional death grip that caused so many at Penn State to fall silent in the wake of unspeakable crimes, they're best off telling their coaches that coaching is all they need to do. No more being gatekeepers to adulthood. No more "coaching for life". None of that. It's a lie, and now you know for certain.