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Madden: Howland gets it right; not Paterno

Saturday, March 29, 2003

If Ben Howland goes to UCLA and it turns out he rounded off his legacy at Pitt by benching Donatas Zavackas for insubordination in the Panthers' Sweet 16 loss to Marquette, so be it.

It beats the heck out of allowing someone accused of sexual assault who has been expelled from school to play in a bowl game, although Joe Paterno might not agree with that.

Zavackas basically went nuts in the latter stages of Pitt's elimination. He took off his shoes and sat on the floor when Howland substituted for him. He had a verbal skirmish with Carl Krauser. After the game, he sat on the bench and didn't shake hands with anyone. In short, Zavackas acted like an idiot.

Howland isn't one to let the inmates run the asylum. So he didn't use Zavackas for the final eight minutes. Pitt could have used Zavackas' 3-point shooting down the stretch. But you don't sacrifice your credibility as a coach and the credibility of your program for one game. Not even such a big game.

Howland did the right thing.

"He went over and pouted because I took him out of the game," Howland said. "I'm not going to play that game. I said, I'm not going to play him anymore."

If Pitt fans are upset, they should be upset with Zavackas. He's the one who blew it. Zavackas put his ego ahead of the team. If Zavackas had kept his head, Howland would have kept playing him.

Zavackas let his teammates down, he let Pitt's fans down, he embarrassed his coach, he looked like a jerk on national TV, and he guaranteed that his collegiate career will be remembered for its bizarre ending instead of the positive things he accomplished over four years.

Zavackas' outburst wasn't totally surprising. He caused many eyes to roll when he said the NCAA tournament should be canceled if war broke out. Zavackas' sympathies were not out of line, but a statement like that isn't the way to convince your teammates you're going to be focused at crunch time. As it turned out, he wasn't.

Tim Benz, who covered the Panthers on a daily basis for my radio station, said a few hours before the game Thursday night that Zavackas had the demeanor of a time bomb ready to go off.

Speaking of explosions, what was that I just heard blow up? Wasn't that the myth of Joe Paterno, moral guardian, that just got splattered all over the University Park landscape?

The Penn State football coach long has lambasted peers who have lied, cheated and/or looked the other way when an athlete did something wrong. Who have done things the sleazy way or the easy way. Paterno has always taken pride in holding himself and his program to a higher standard.

Now Paterno has become what he despises.

Penn State defensive back Anwar Phillips played in the Capital One Bowl last season despite being temporarily expelled after he took responsibility for an encounter with a female student that ultimately led to a sexual-assault charge.

A university spokesman said the Penn State athletic department (i.e., Paterno) was made aware of the expulsion before the bowl game. Phillips played anyway.

At this stage in his career and life, Paterno seems to think he's infallible. Penn State's pope of football waved away questions about Phillips at a news conference Wednesday, uttering this absolutely precious non sequitur: "Why don't you guys talk about our graduation rate?"

Then, of course, Paterno tried to switch the heat: "If you said to me, 'Would you be embarrassed that one of our Big Ten colleagues had 39 percent of their football players graduate?' I would say, 'Yes.' "

Paterno, always holier than thou, isn't holier than anybody these days. Not even Jackie Sherrill. Ouch. Bet that left a mark.

To recap: One of Paterno's players stood accused of sexual assault, admitted responsibility for the encounter, was expelled, Paterno knew about it, but used the player in a bowl game anyway. Can even the most loyal of Paterno apologists come up with a decent excuse for that mess?

No. But I'm sure many will try. Penn State followers are like sheep. Baaa, baaa, baaa. It's a shame Paterno didn't come up with an explanation for playing Phillips. Then the Penn State flock would have a company line to parrot.

Now, more than ever, it's time for Paterno to step down. A mediocre football program is no sin. But the Phillips scandal is embarrassing to the entire university. It's not only a blemish on Paterno's reputation, but makes the militant stance he has taken against indiscretions at other schools look hypocritical and stupid.

Paterno has crossed the line from old school to old fool. He's a sorry caricature of himself.

Here's betting it only gets worse.

Many fans constantly clamor for coaches to take authority back. Those fans have a new hero: Ben Howland. Nice timing, Ben. Joe Paterno just fell off that particular pedestal.

Mark Madden is the host of a sports talk show from 3-7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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