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Paterno scandal fallout goes far beyond Penn State

Here’s my Nov. 11 column on Penn State. Had some requests from readers who were having trouble finding it at . .

Say it ain’t so, JoePa.

With one inexplicably monstrous lapse in judgment nine years ago, Joe Paterno cast a cloud over not merely Happy Valley, but the passionate world of college football.

When Penn State, a beacon for winning with good values, goes so horribly wrong, it raises questions about an entire sport. That’s why the shocking accusations -that school officials covered up the predatory ways of former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky – has transcended sports pages to become a national-news obsession.

Interim coach Tom Bradley, who replaced Paterno, will guide the No. 12 Nittany Lions Saturday vs. No. 19 Nebraska. It will be Senior Day, a time when seniors ought to be celebrated. Instead, the spotlight will be on the sideshow of Penn State playing under the cloud of scandal, and without JoePa coaching for the first time since 1949.Paterno and his supporters seem to have a disconnect about the seriousness of his failure to stop Sandusky when informed of an appalling sex act with a 10-year-old in the Penn State locker room in 2002.

But the rest of the world knows. College football may never be the same.

Schools can never again let a coach have that much discretion or power, even one as beloved and seemingly noble as Paterno, the winningest coach in major-college history who had a reputation for doing things the right way.

Faced with a new level of potential disasters, coaches and administrators everywhere have a new set of worries, and another reason to devise new safeguards.

“I don’t think it’s a game changer in that you would hope you’re being vigilant at all times,” Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas told the Sun-Times Thursday. “Will this be a wakeup call for some people? I’m sure that’s the case. But I would hope it would be a part of people’s DNA already.”

The Big Ten already was on alert when Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, who had won six straight league titles, was felled last spring by a scandal in which his players sold jerseys and other team trinkets for tattoos.

“Everything that’s happened in the last year has forced all of us to re-evaluate,” Illinois coach Ron Zook told the Sun-Times. “You have to know what’s going on in your program. Is that possible? I’m not sure, but I know we sure try.”

It’s an imperfect science. Like virtually every other coach, Zook has had trying moments – some of them deserved, some not.

Beyond expressing compassion, neither Zook, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald nor Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly felt comfortable commenting on the wrenching Penn State situation.

“It’s really sad,” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t have a whole lot more to say besides that.”

Asked if he’s been following the news out of State College, Kelly said, “I didn’t know that you couldn’t. It has been on TV, on the radio. It’s just a sad, sad situation. I just don’t know too much about it because I’ve been focusing on here, but certainly my heart goes out to all the victims.”

“It’s just an awful thing,” Zook said. “I don’t know the details, I won’t comment on that. But it’s something that, once again, you have to do things the right way in every aspect of your life.”

For all of his ups and downs, Zook, in his seventh year at Illinois, now stands second in Big Ten seniority, behind Kirk Ferentz, Iowa’s 12th-year coach.

“There’s so much out there now,” Zook said. “Believe me, it’s not just football. There’s a lot more to being a head coach than just X’s and O’s. There’s not nearly as much X’s and O’s as I wish there was.”

Penn State’s inability to do something as obvious as refer child-molesting charges to the proper authorities should drive home the need for having better policies in place.

But disaster is always in the back of a coach’s mind.

“You worry about driving down the road, and somebody being drunk and killing you,” Zook said. “But you can’t live like that. You just do the best you can and put it in God’s hands.”