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Kevin Schnepf, Published July 23 2012

Schnepf: North Dakota native, ex-Penn State coach says he was among those who put Joe Paterno on a pedestal

FARGO - Jeff Ditch, once one of 260 or so residents living in Abercrombie, N.D., was sitting in the office of legendary coach Joe Paterno.

It was 1997, when Ditch was the hitting coach and recruiting coordinator for the Penn State baseball team. It was about the time he was trying to talk Rochester, Minn., standout Mike Restovich into playing baseball at Penn State.

Restovich already made a visit to Notre Dame, which included a meeting with then football coach Lou Holtz. So Ditch figured why not have Restovich meet Paterno – already a legend in the college football world.

“We were in his office for about 90 minutes,” Ditch recalled. “Talk about a guy who could win you over with his passion for Penn State. He won me over. I just sat there in awe.”

Ditch, now the head baseball coach at Indiana University-Pennsylvania, was recounting that story Monday – the day the governing body of college sports crippled Penn State’s football program by imposing a mountain of fines and penalties for the school’s mishandling of a well-publicized child sex abuse scandal.

The NCAA punishment erased 14 years of Paterno’s wins, ending his reign as the all-time winningest coach in major college football. On Sunday, the statue of Paterno was taken down – the same monument that was hallowed for years, especially after his death earlier this year. Last week, the halo that shined above Paterno’s head in a mural was erased.

To some degree, Ditch was blaming himself for the fall of Paterno and the football program he ran for nearly five decades.

“We all put him on a pedestal,” said Ditch, who was at Penn State from 1993 to 1998. “You kind of look at yourself and blame yourself for some of that.”

The blame, of course, falls on Paterno – who ultimately acquired too much power. He felt he could cover up reports that one-time assistant Jerry Sandusky was sexually-abusing kids. Last month, Sandusky was found guilty of abusing young boys – some of whom Ditch may have even seen walking through the Penn State practice facility back in 1998.

“At the time, we were all completely oblivious to the whole thing,” Ditch said, referring to Sandusky’s The Second Mile charity, in which he invited underprivileged kids to Penn State. “We would see those kids walking around. That’s how he drew them in.

“Everybody right now is talking about Penn State’s punishment. But what happened to those kids is far worse. Ultimately, Jerry Sandusky is a monster.”

Ditch admits he still has a passion for Penn State athletics. But unlike others who were once there, Ditch admits the NCAA punishment is deserved. He sees nothing wrong with taking down Paterno’s statue.

“To me, when they decided to put the statue up was a little strange,” said Ditch, a 1984 Richland High School and 1989 Valley City State graduate. “I don’t think athletics falls that high on the list.”

When people say the NCAA shouldn’t have gotten involved because this wasn’t a football issue, they are wrong. Football and the power it created for Paterno allowed more children to become sexually abused.

Paterno was put on a pedestal so high, the Penn State president and athletic director opted to look the other way as well. They have since been dismissed at Penn State.

“The athletic director and football coach at any university have an extreme amount of power,” Ditch said. “It’s fine when they use that power to make decisions regarding money and stadiums, but not when it comes to something that deals with child abuse.

“When that comes up, after 30 seconds, you don’t even have a conversation about athletics anymore. You are not even a coach at that point. You become a human being who has to do the right thing.”

So on Monday when Penn State received what many believed to be harsher than a death penalty, Ditch was out recruiting at a Pennsylvania high school baseball game.

“I can see three people with Penn State T-shirts on right now as I speak,” Ditch said. “They are crazy out here for Penn State football.”

Hopefully not crazy enough to put another football coach on a pedestal so high that it becomes easy to abuse power.

Readers can reach Forum Sports Editor

Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549

or kschnepf@forumcomm.com