When Watson Brown walked across the field to shake Joe Paterno’s hand, he didn’t know what to expect.
After all, in his first game as the head coach of Cincinnati, Brown had just knocked off defending national champ Penn State. On the road.
“He was just gracious — ‘You beat us and I can’t be prouder for you. You out-coached us and out-played us,’ ” Brown remembers of the 14-3 victory in 1983. “Just first class. A lot of times when you knock those guys off that’s not what is said. That’s probably the most gracious any coach had been to me after a tough loss.”
Nearly 30 years later, Brown, a former Vanderbilt head coach in his sixth season at Tennessee Tech, fears the worst about the late Paterno, a coach he “looked up to all the way through.”
On Monday, NCAA president Mark Emmert imposed unprecedented sanctions on Penn State in light of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
The NCAA fined the university $60 million, imposed a four-year postseason ban, reduced 10 initial and 20 total scholarships each year for a four-year period and vacated all 111 wins from 1998 to 2011. The penalties affect Paterno’s all-time coaching mark, dropping him from first at 409 to 12th with 298 on the winningest NCAA football coaching list.
“It’s just a sad day,” Brown said. “It is so sad for the children and that’s not fixable. Anything that happens at Penn State is fixable in time but that wasn’t fixable. I just hope Coach [Paterno], that as it comes out through the wash, that he wasn’t as involved in this as it looks like they’re saying he is. That’s all I hope. I just hope and pray, as it comes on down, that it proves to not be as deep with him, for his sake.”
Similarly somber feelings resonated through the Holiday Inn on West End during the Ohio Valley Conference football media day.
Instead of looking ahead to the 2012 season, more questions centered on the effects of the sanctions and what else could have been done.
“He took it to his higher-ups and I think he followed protocol,” Tennessee State coach Rod Reed said. “Could he have done more? Could he have fired Sandusky? I guess so. ... Was he told if you fire him it’s going to be a big cover-up? Those are things people can’t answer. So he had to look out for his family and the well-being of his family so you never know what really happened in that situation.
“But the actions of one man have caused the fall of a great dynasty in college football.”
Dino Babers, in his first year as head coach at Eastern Illinois, hesitated to share his opinion, preferring to keep his feelings “inside my house, inside my walls with my family and my children.”
Though he most recently spent four years as an assistant at Baylor, Babers coached at Pittsburgh in 2003. Thus, he understands the impact of Penn State football.
“Penn State is the university, obviously, in that state and it’s going to affect a lot of people,” Babers said. “I don’t have the right to voice my opinion. ... My thing is, like everybody else, we’re just disappointed.”