Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin hugs his wife after his team defeated the Wisconsin Badgers 38-31 in the 2016 Big Ten Football Championship Game in Indianapolis on December 3, 2016. Photo by John Sommers II/UPI
Penn State’s 38-31 victory over No. 6 Wisconsin in Saturday night’s 2016 Big Ten championship game was bigger than you think. With a convincing win, Penn State won its first conference championship in eight seasons. It was, in part, a vindication for Coach James Franklin and the Penn State Football program.
When the Wisconsin Badgers raced out to a 28-7 lead over the Nittany Lions in the first half, the impact of this year’s successful season was in doubt and it seemed like Penn State Football had only come halfway home. Yet their remarkable comeback in the second half against Wisconsin — the largest in Big Ten title game history – coupled with their victory over Ohio State earlier in the season, was proof positive of the return of Penn State Football. The turnaround removed all doubts about how far Penn State has come since their fall from grace in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
In 2012, Penn State Board of Trustees hired former FBI director Louis Freeh and his firm, including a team of former federal prosecutors and FBI agents, to conduct an independent investigation into the scandal. In the opinion of many, the mission Freeh was given seemed to presuppose that Sandusky’s crimes were not his alone and that people who had reason to suspect him had looked away.
Joseph Vincent Paterno, a.k.a. “Joe Pa,” was fired the second to last game of the 2011 season in the middle of the scandal. After being accused in the Freeh Report of withholding information about Jerry Sandusky’s inappropriate behavior in the locker room, in essence, Paterno was found “guilty” in the court of public opinion. A year after the report’s issuance, the chairman of the Penn State Board of Trustees, which had originally commissioned the report, said that Freeh’s conclusions amounted to “speculation.”
On September 4, 2013, in an interview conducted by Showtime’s 60 Minutes Sports, the former Chief Deputy Attorney General of Pennsylvania, Frank Fina, who investigated and prosecuted Jerry Sandusky, stated that he found no evidence that Joe Paterno participated in a cover-up. Fina then qualified that statement, stating that he saw no need to judge Paterno beyond his own words and that Paterno himself said it best. “He said: ‘I didn’t do enough… I should have done more.'”
Because of the findings of the Freeh Report, The NCAA vacated 112 of Penn State’s wins dating back to 1998. This included the removal of Paterno’s last 111 wins at Penn State, dropping him from first to 12th on the all-time wins list. And, while it may never be medically proven, the scandal certainly sucked the life right out of Joe. In November of 2011 it was reported that Paterno had a treatable form of lung cancer.
It is clear to me that the scandal only helped to worsen Joe’s condition, and on January 13, 2012, Paterno was hospitalized for complications relating to his cancer treatment. He remained there until he died nine days later on January 22, 2012.
But redemption is sweet. In 2015, the NCAA reinstated Joe Pa’s wins. And the vigor and vitality of the Penn State football team has been restored as evidenced by the 2016 Big 10 Championship win which was transforming and is heartwarming indeed.
As my momma used to say, “God don’t like ugly.” God will one day right every wrong and make every rough place plain. God will upset the apple cart of your enemies and make every crooked lie straight and every false accusation frivolous.
And that is what has just happened for Penn State.