Being a former Penn State football player, Jacksonville State athletic director Warren “Moose” Koegel said in mid-October what he had often said when speaking to civic groups. He told the Boaz (Ala.) Rotary Club, “I just don’t see it,” when asked if then 84-year-old PSU coach Joe Paterno would be retiring any time soon.
But within three weeks of that speaking engagement, the college football world — if not American sports in general — took a dramatic turn for the worse, all of it centering on Joe Pa, former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky and the shocking, horrific charges against Sandusky of child sex abuse.
“It’s a sick deal,” Koegel, a former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga assistant athletic director, said of those charges.
Few truer words have ever been spoken. And like it or not, Paterno’s subsequent termination over the scandal and Sandusky’s upcoming trial will long remain the biggest sports story of 2011, though it’s a sports story only in the context of Sandusky’s former occupation and his long-term ties to Paterno and the Nittany Lions.
Still, if it hasn’t touched you in one way or another, you’ve either somehow managed to avoid hearing the first word about it — and if that’s the case, we envy you — or you need a test to determine if you’re a human being or a robot.
Fortunately, more than 10 months of 2011 were in the books before the story first broke on Nov. 5, ironically the same day as college football’s Game of the 21st Century between Alabama and LSU.
With that in mind, here’s one writer’s view of a sports year far more bad than good:
January — Auburn won the BCS title (the SEC’s fifth straight) and former Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl began serving his odd eight-game SEC suspension for lying to NCAA investigators about secondary recruiting violations. The one game he coached during the suspension against eventual national champ Connecticut ended in a loss. UT would finish the year 5-3 in SEC regular-season games Pearl didn’t coach and 3-5 in those he did. That wasn’t why Pearl was terminated in March, but it surely made the school’s decision easier.
February — Seeded sixth in the NFC at the start of the NFL playoffs, Green Bay rode the brilliant play of quarterback Aaron Rodgers to the Packers’ fourth Super Bowl title, knocking off Pittsburgh to win the Lombardi Trophy, which is named for former Packers coaching great Vince Lombardi. When it comes to rating Rodgers among past Green Bay quarterbacks, can anyone say Brett Who?
March — Yes, Madness was hotter than ever, what with a classic overtime thriller between Butler and Pitt and both Virginia Commonweath and Butler reaching the Final Four, but it was also the month that Ohio State president Gordon Gee, when asked about football coach Jim Tressel’s job security in the wake of Tattoogate, said, “I just hope he doesn’t fire me.” By Memorial Day weekend, Tressel was gone and Gee and OSU athletic director Gene Smith should have been.
April — UConn guard Kemba Walker dunked the Final Four field and Charl Schwartzel — so skinny he couldn’t fit an “e” and an “s” on the end of his first name — won the Masters. Arguably the most positive sports month of the year, especially when you consider that the tragic April tornadoes that ravaged Tuscaloosa (as well as our area and others) brought Alabama and Auburn athletes and fans together like never before.
May — Animal Kingdom won the Kentucky Derby for his first-ever victory on dirt, but it was the UTC softball team that deserves the biggest kudos locally for not only reaching the NCAA softball tourney for the eighth time in school history but also making the Tuscaloosa regional final before falling to high-ranked host Alabama.
June — Why can’t LeBron James make change for a dollar? Because he’s only good for three quarters. In one of the most popular NBA finals results outside South Beach, the Dallas Mavericks made the most of the last pro basketball any of us would see until Christmas Day by knocking off James and his “Dream Team” Miami Heat.
July — Novak Djokovic defeated Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon to prove he deserved his No. 1 tennis ranking; the NFL — surprise, surprise — ended its strike; and a little closer to home, South Carolina and Alabama were voted the preseason favorites to reach the SEC title game at the league’s annual Football Media Days. Shows what sports writers know.
August — In what may go down as one of the saddest months in University of Tennessee athletic history, Lady Vols basketball coach Pat Summitt revealed she had early-onset dimentia, Alzheimer’s type. Easily one of the top 10 sports stories of the year nationally. Naturally, the best role model in college athletics — men’s or women’s — continues to coach.
September — The Atlanta Braves held a three-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals with five to play in the National League wild-card race on the morning of Sept. 24. The Braves didn’t win again, the Redbirds won four of five and Atlanta was out of the playoffs in arguably one of the two biggest collapses in baseball history — along with Boston falling out of the American League playoffs.
October — UT fans may remember it as their Oh-fer-SEC month, but most of the nation will remember it for Game 6 of the World Series, when the Cardinals — twice down to their last strike in both the ninth and 10th innings — rallied to knock off the Texas Rangers in 11 in what some believe is the greatest Fall Classic game ever. That St. Looie won its 11th world title the next night merely added to the magic of its 10-9 triumph on Oct. 27.
November — Sandusky’s face of evil may have dominated the headlines, but LSU’s 9-6 overtime win over Alabama, UT’s first loss in 27 years to a Kentucky team forced to play wide receiver Matt Roark at quarterback and Tony Stewart topping Carl Edwards in a tiebreaker for NASCAR’s Sprint Cup title also were memorable. Besieged by injuries and a tough schedule, UTC’s Mocs finished 5-6.
December — Locally, the best news was Lee University’s women’s soccer team winning its fourth staight NAIA national championship for coach Matt Yelton and senior star Jamie Achten. Nationally, does any news stir the pot for a more exciting 2012 than Tiger Woods winning his first tournament in more than two years at the Chevron World Challenge? Yes, it was a small field, but after he birdied the final two holes for a one-shot win, Woods’ assessment that “when I was coming down the stretch I felt so comfortable” surely sends shivers through much of the rest of pro golf.
If nothing else, let us all hope that the sick deal that is the Sandusky saga doesn’t find a similar scandal to soil the year ahead.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...