By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) One is a wolf in sheep's clothing -- a nasty megalomaniac who is over-worshipped and overpowered because of a bouncing, rubber ball. He's as vainglorious and vindictive as the coach for whom he once played, but with a better understanding of PR. Bobby Knight, airbrushed.
The other is an otherwise well-meaning buffoon who has shriveled into a groaning, geriatric caricature. He's an infomercial pitchman for a sport in decline, still doing the same act that worked in 1987. He is what his employer is: a broadcaster turned marketer.
Mike Krzyzewski and Dick Vitale are symbiotic beings, having nourished each other for nearly 30 years. The literal tower from which Krzyzewski surveys Duke's west campus was built as much by Vitale's obsequiousness as it was by victories, and the national attention to the school afforded Vitale a bully pulpit.
Their biological mutualism showed an ugly side over the weekend, when both waded into the dank, murky water of the Penn State child-rape scandal. Krzyzewski told CNN the school was wrong to fire Joe Paterno, the coach who had an eyewitness account of Jerry Sandusky raping a boy in the shower of the football office, yet allowed him to use the facilities to prey on more victims for ten years afterward.
"You had somebody who's given six decades of service to the university and done such an incredible job," Krzyzewski said. "Somehow, you have to let, something has to play out and respect the fact that you've gone through all these experiences for six decades. It doesn't just go out the window right at the end. I thought it was a real mistake by Penn State's leadership."
As is his nature, Vitale then took to Twitter to add support to that opinion. His reflexive response began as a simple "I agree," but then grew more strident, specific, and unfortunate. "Do u believe Joe Pa would allow this monster to attack innocent young ppl.?," he wrote yesterday. "Maybe I am naïve but I just don't believe it."
Despite sworn testimony that proves conclusively that Paterno indeed allowed exactly that, Vitale chose willful ignorance – the very same choice made by many at Penn State who facilitated Sandusky.
It is one thing to use a position as a basketball analyst to hype coaches at every chance, breathlessly overinflating the significance of a game, and fluffing personal legends. It's another, entirely, to allow those well-honed, now-calcified professional instincts to override one's humanity.
Yet Vitale does so because he knows no other way. He simply cannot help but continue his natural toadying to the likes of Paterno and Krzyzewski. Coaches whose teams win over long stretches of time must remain infallible, lest his own existence lose meaning – again, it's parallel to the self-inflicted blindness and deafness manifest across Pennsylvania as the disgusting details of Sandusky's rampage are entered into court record. Something so awful just can't be allowed to be true. In that way, Vitale is continuing to be what he long has been: an amplified fan, who absorbs, digests, and re-radiates emotion.
That's harmless on game day, but shameful now.
Vitale's response may induce weary, head-shaking distaste, but Krzyzewski's demands deeper examination. Here is the reigning coach-as-king, just as Penn State's insular cult of Paterno has us finally realizing that such things should not be allowed to develop. Everything Krzyzewski says and does is solipsistic, so his comments must be viewed through that lens.
He sees it the way so many others have, where coaching is life, and sustained winning confers a kind of immortality. Seeing Paterno so swiftly accountable for moral failure despite a mountain of victories unmasked an uncomfortable truth -- that there are bigger things than college sports, even bigger things than college coaching greatness.
Notice how he repeats the words "six decades," as if temporal continuity in a coaching position guarantees impunity. He needs to think that. It was a shock to his system to see that a coach's grand record of on-field accomplishments can be rendered utterly unimportant in the face of something with real meaning. Wins, titles, graduation record and congressional medals do not counterbalance violent crimes against children.
What's galling is that Krzyzewski doesn't seem to understand that not only did Paterno's coaching history "just go out the window," but that it should.
The top of a tower can be a lonely place for an aging king. He can surround himself with fawning acolytes, count on his words to be echoed by his Minister of Information at ESPN, and remind the world how much he matters. But no words can undo what he has seen.
If Paterno can fall in disgrace, anyone can.
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