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Penn State facing difficult coaching transition amid scandal; more mail

Part of my job is to digest and then analyze breaking news as quickly and insightfully as possible, but I have struggled deeply with the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky story.

I'm no expert in child molestation cases. Few people are. The breadth and magnitude of the sordid allegations in this case aren't something one can easily process in 45 minutes, or even 48 hours. I read and watched this week as many respected colleagues eviscerated Joe Paterno for what they perceived as a moral failing in his handling of Sandusky's alleged 2002 sexual assault of a 10-year-old boy in the Penn State locker room -- the mere thought of which makes me nauseous. But I prefer to tread cautiously before drawing conclusions about serious, life-altering legal matters. As ESPN.com's Dana O'Neil, a Penn State alum, eloquently wrote Monday: "If the Duke lacrosse case has taught us anything, we don't know what we don't know."

But as the story continued to unfold, one particular detail revealed Monday set me over the edge. Yahoo!'s Dan Wetzel reported that Sandusky was seen working out in Penn State's weight room as recently as LAST WEEK. Having already testified before the grand jury, Paterno was well aware Sandusky was under investigation for alleged sex crimes.

It doesn't matter what Paterno was or wasn't told that fateful day in 2002, or what he did or didn't do with that information. For the past nine years, perhaps even longer, there was a complete vacuum in leadership in the Penn State football program, from the head coach up to the president. We don't have enough information to ascertain whether their failure to take action against Sandusky was part of some sinister cover-up (as many are suggesting) or simply gross negligence. Either way, the program failed itself and its community by allowing an accused predator to continue committing an alleged series of heinous crimes that could have been prevented at least nine years earlier. Paterno was far from the only authority figure in the program who failed to do more, but he is the CEO. This happened under his watch. Ultimately, he bears the responsibility for that breakdown.

As a sportswriter, I'm not qualified to assess the criminal aspect of this story. I can only deal in the here and now, in which a legendary coach is about to exit the sport under a cloud of disgrace, and a program that long prided itself on doing things the right way may never be viewed the same way again.

"Everything ends badly, otherwise it would never end." The scandal at Penn State seems destined to radically change the culture of the school. Assuming JoePa will not be the coach at Penn State next year in the wake of the most disgusting scandal in college football in my lifetime, where does the program go without an athletic director or head coach?-- Robert, Gainesville, Fla.

Even before the Sandusky allegations came out, Penn State was facing the most difficult coaching transition since Bear Bryant left Alabama. What coach in America would want to take on the gargantuan challenge of replacing a living legend? What qualities would that coach need to possess for the fan base to embrace him? Rumored candidate Urban Meyer seemed about the only one who could realistically come in and engender confidence from Day 1.

Now, the tables have turned. What coach in his right mind would want that job right now? Whoever it is will be walking into a tainted program in a despondent community that's watching everything it stood by for 45 years be desecrated. And he'll probably have little to no idea who he will be working for, because President Graham Spanier is likely down to his last days as well. For all its success, Penn State is not a magnet for recruits. Players who bought into the program were buying into The Paterno Way, as embodied by those classic uniforms. That's gone now. What's left for the next guy to sell?

If you're looking for a blueprint of what Penn State's program is about to face, look no further than Colorado. In 2004, a Boulder district attorney -- while giving a deposition in a civil suit filed by two women who alleged they were raped at a party attended by Buffaloes players and recruits -- accused the football program of using sex and alcohol as recruiting tools. A media firestorm ensued much like the one currently enveloping Penn State. Nine women, including former kicker Katie Hnida, wound up accusing football players of sexual assault. When all was said and done, the president, chancellor and athletic director all resigned. Coach Gary Barnett lasted another two seasons, but was ultimately blackballed from coaching, despite two separate investigations that found he did nothing wrong. Unlike this Penn State story, no one was ever prosecuted or even arrested, yet seven years later, that program is still a shell of its former self.

I'm not predicting Penn State will sink to the bottom of the Big Ten. Frankly, its on-field future is the least of anyone's concerns right now. But the Penn State community -- one of the tightest out there -- will be hard-pressed to remain united when it's already so divided between JoePa's defenders and JoePa's horrified critics. And it will be a tall chore convincing parents to send their sons to play in State College until the stigma from this scandal fades, which could take years. It's a sad day in Happy Valley, but the school has only itself to blame. It allowed Paterno to keep ruling his fiefdom unabated well into his 80s, even as it was evident he was no longer capable. It probably seemed harmless as long as the Nittany Lions kept winning. It turns out more harm was allegedly done than anyone could ever have imagined.

I must have missed something while trying to watch that pathetic excuse of offensive football Saturday night. Yes, I'm talking about the LSU vs. Alabama game. Why is it that if it's No. 1 vs. No. 2, it's an epic defensive battle, but when Illinois and Penn State played the week before, with two very good defenses as well, it supposedly set offensive football back a century? Why are we being spoon fed this garbage as an epic battle of two super powers?-- DC, Redondo Beach, Fla.

Look, I'm a Penn State fan. I know a lot about horrible offense, especially this season. LSU-Alabama was not clumsy, awkward Big Ten football. This was more Steelers-Ravens than OSU-Wisconsin. It could have gone either way and went down to the bitter end. Isn't that what we really want to see? The same was true of Kansas State-Oklahoma State as far as interest, but they just were incapable of playing defense.-- Paul McChesney, Woodstock, Ga.

It wasn't the classic we'd hoped for, but if you can't appreciate the quality of defense played by both teams Saturday night, I'm sorry to say you really don't know much about football. How do we know this was different from Penn State-Illinois? Because we're nine games in at this point, and Penn State hasn't been able to score on anyone, good or bad. Going into Saturday night, Alabama and LSU were both averaging nearly 40 points per game, and while hardly fancy on offense, had been able to wear down every defense they'd faced -- until they ran into each other. The game was a defensive standstill ultimately decided by LSU's superior special teams. The one time Alabama nearly scored a touchdown, on Marquis Maze's Wildcat pass to Michael Williams, LSU's Eric Reid made a sensational play to rip the ball away. That's the defensive equivalent of Brandon Weeden throwing a perfectly placed touchdown to Justin Blackmon.

Of course both teams made mistakes. There were questionable coaching decisions, like Nick Saban not even trying to run the ball in overtime to set up a shorter field-goal attempt. Both teams' quarterbacks struggled. But over the years we've seen teams led by Matt Mauck, Craig Krenzel and Matt Flynn win BCS championships, while teams led by Heisman winners Chris Weinke, Jason White, Troy Smith and Sam Bradford got completely shut down. It might not be exciting, but dominant defenses trump high-flying offenses nine times out of 10.

I'm with Paul on this one.

Only a blind fool would believe either LSU or Oklahoma State could stop Andrew Luck. It would be a mismatch of historic proportion.-- Owen, Crewe, UK

What do you say we find out how he does against Oregon first?

Stewart, does Alabama only dropping to No. 4 in the latest poll effectively mean that Boise State can forget about playing in the national championship for another year? It seems like Oklahoma State and Stanford would both have to lose and Alabama would have to lose AGAIN for them to get a shot.-- Rob McDaniel, Greenville, Texas

Actually, it's quite the opposite. The LSU-Alabama field-goal fest and its ensuing backlash was just about the best thing that could have happened to Boise State's national championship hopes. It all but guaranteed there will be little appetite for a Tigers-Tide rematch in January. 'Bama may be ahead of Boise now, but there's nothing stopping the voters from changing their ballots come Dec. 3 -- something they've done several times before. And I think that's exactly what they'd do if Boise were the only viable alternative to a rematch. It's possible there'd be a big enough discrepancy in the computers that 'Bama would still finish ahead of the Broncos in the overall standings, but my guess is whichever team the majority of voters side with would finish No. 2.

Now, before angry Crimson Tide e-mailers firebomb my inbox, let me offer those people their own little ray of hope.

I looked at an online version of the SEC divisional tiebreakers, and my head hurts. How about a little professional help? To wit, if (and it's a big one, I know) the Arkansas Razorbacks can generate a three-way tie atop the SEC West by bumping off the LSU Tigers, who gets to go to the SEC Championship?-- Clint Weldon, Austin, Texas

Remember in 2008 when Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech finished in a three-way tie in the Big 12 South, and the Sooners got the championship game spot over a team they'd lost to (Texas)? The SEC tiebreaker is designed to avoid just that.

It states that in a three-way tie with no other form of resolution, the team with the highest BCS ranking gets the invite to Atlanta -- UNLESS the No. 2 team is within five spots of the highest-ranked team, in which case it reverts to head-to-head between those two teams. Right now, LSU is No. 1, Alabama is No. 3 and Arkansas is No. 8, with either No. 3 Stanford or No. 7 Oregon, and No. 2 Oklahoma State or No. 6 Oklahoma State guaranteed to lose. It's very feasible, then, that if the Razorbacks were to upset No. 1 LSU, the Tigers would fall back behind Alabama, and Arkansas would either be the highest of the bunch, or in between the Tide and Tigers. Either way, Alabama and Arkansas would be the top two and within five spots of each other, which means the Tide would win the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Razorbacks and go to Atlanta.

Hey Stewart. In the BCS era, can you think of any other school that has played a tougher nonconference schedule than Tulsa? The Hurricane played current BCS No. 6 Oklahoma in Norman, No. 5 Boise State on the blue turf and No. 2 Oklahoma State in that weird weather delayed game that kicked off after midnight. Talk about brutal!!!-- Luke, Edmond, Okla.

I absolutely cannot, though I open the floor to my army of researchers in the field (you guys) to submit evidence of a tougher one. Much credit to Tulsa for shaking off those early beatdowns (which they lost 47-14, 59-33 and 41-21, respectively) to start 5-0 in conference play.

Stewart, Will the Big East be able to keep its AQ status with adding Boise, SMU, Houston, UCF and whatever other school it can find? Even with this new alignment won't they still face the same problem that midlevel conferences face now that the strength of schedule is terrible compared to the other "big time" conferences?-- Kris Andrews, Mililani, Hawaii

I don't believe so. As I wrote a little while back, the Big East's future won't be determined by BCS rankings or computer averages. It will be determined by marketplace interest. In light of the massive changes to conference membership over the past two years, the next BCS contract (which will be negotiated next year) could entail massive restructuring. The BCS could look completely different than the model we've grown accustomed to since 1998. There may not even be such a thing as "automatic qualifiers." But however it's structured, I just can't imagine that the proposed lineup the Big East is compiling will be enticing enough to bowls and television networks to warrant the same degree of access as the Big Ten, SEC, etc.

Case in point: Have you noticed that even at 9-0 and No. 11 in the polls, there hasn't been a whiff of interest in the Cougars from one of the major bowls? That's not a slight against Case Keenum or his teammates; it's just that fans aren't itching to watch an Alabama-Houston bowl game, just as the Orange Bowl must be cringing at the possibility of another Cincinnati-Virginia Tech showdown. So why would the BCS' next television partner (presumably ESPN) or its bowl partners want to lock themselves into an arrangement where they may be forced to take a Houston or Cincinnati every year, regardless of ranking? That doesn't mean ESPN wouldn't make an offer, or the Fiesta Bowl would pull out of the BCS, if presented with a contract that includes an automatic Big East berth. But they'll be likely to offer significantly more money if they know that 10th spot will go to a highly ranked team from a more prestigious conference.

I saw your BCS predictions with Wisconsin going to the Rose Bowl because you think both the Badgers and Ohio State will beat Penn State. That also means you are predicting Ohio State to lose one more game. Are you saying Michigan will end its misery against Ohio State this year?-- Zach, Columbus, Ohio

Maybe. Or maybe I'm picking Purdue this week. The Buckeyes do have a one-game losing streak in West Lafayette. You'll just have to wait and find out.

Stewart, I read your column on Missouri being added to the SEC. While I agree with many of your "cultural fit" points, my question is who should they have gone after instead?-- Mike, Marietta, Ga.

The question isn't "Who should the SEC have gone after?" It's "Why did the SEC need to expand in the first place?"

Mike Slive hasn't made many mistakes in his tenure, so I'm sure he has his reasons (money), but the SEC doesn't need 14 teams. Unlike the ACC or Big 12, it wasn't facing imminent danger. Unlike the Pac-12, it wasn't in desperate need of a kick-start heading into a television negotiation. Unlike the Big Ten, it didn't get to add one of the most prestigious programs in the sport. The SEC was in the ultimate position of power, yet overreacted to the threat of the Pac-12 adding Texas. On that threat alone, it felt it had to get into Texas and thus plucked Texas A&M, at which point it needed a 14th team. But there wasn't any obviously appealing option. Missouri was available, and here we are.

I should add I feel bad that I keep dogging on Missouri. I have nothing against that fine school. In fact I should be indebted to it. The only time my name has ever appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated came from covering the Tigers' moment of glory in 2007. I'm just disappointed the SEC went and messed with a perfectly good product, and I know a lot of its fans are, too.

Aren't you a Northwestern journalism graduate? Could that have something to do with your dislike of Missouri and given you a negative slant?-- Mike Lawson, Springfield, Ohio

You know how vicious those J-school rivalries can be. The Iron Bowl's got nothing on us. I will go to my grave convinced that Missouri boosters paid for Dennis Dodd and Pat Forde.

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