NEW YORK — The ouster of one of America’s most revered coaches, Penn State’s Joe Paterno, after shocking child sex abuse charges against his former assistant was overwhelmingly voted the sports story of the year by members of The Associated Press.
On the morning of Nov. 5, Paterno’s Nittany Lions were undefeated in the Big Ten and ranked No. 16 in the country, and the 84-year-old Hall of Famer was renowned as the winningest coach in Division I football, a leader who preached and practiced “Success with Honor.” Then came the staggering revelations: the indictment of longtime defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky for allegedly sexually assaulting eight boys over a 15-year span, perjury charges against two high-ranking school administrators – and a grand jury report that suggested Paterno knew of accusations against Sandusky and did not do enough to pursue them.
Within four days, Penn State’s board of trustees had done the once-unthinkable, firing Paterno after 46 seasons as head coach.
There were 214 ballots submitted from U.S. news organizations that make up the AP’s membership.
The Penn State saga received 172 first-place votes. It was also voted the No. 6 news story for 2011 in the AP’s annual poll of U.S. editors and news directors. The No. 2 sports story – labor strife in the NFL and NBA – had 15 first-place votes.
The turmoil that at times seemed to rock college sports on a weekly basis this year was evident in the voting beyond the Penn State selection.
Three more of the top 10 stories involved upheaval in the NCAA: conference realignment (No. 4); the Ohio State infractions that cost Jim Tressel his job (No. 6); and more sex abuse accusations, these involving Syracuse basketball assistant coach Bernie Fine (No. 9).
AP’S TOP 10 STORIES FOR 2011
1. PENN STATE
2. NFL/NBA LOCKOUTS: “Millionaires vs. billionaires” was often fans’ reaction to the labor woes that struck the NFL and NBA this year. Football’s work stoppage lasted 4½ months; it cost the league one preseason game. Basketball’s dragged on for more than five months and wiped out 16 games of the normal 82-game schedule.
3. PACKERS WIN: Aaron Rodgers and injury-ravaged Green Bay barely made the playoffs as a No. 6 seed last season, then won three road games to reach the Super Bowl, where they beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-25.
4. CONFERENCE REALIGNMENT: Another dizzying round of college conference hopping made a mockery of geography. Texas A&M bolted the Big 12 for the SEC in September, which set off the dominoes. Missouri followed the Aggies to the SEC. The Big East lost Syracuse and Pittsburgh to the ACC and West Virginia and TCU to the Big 12, then regrouped by adding some hardly Eastern schools: Boise State, San Diego State, Houston, SMU.
5. CARDINALS WIN: The Cardinals were twice down to their final strike in Game 6 of the World Series against the Texas Rangers, who were up by two runs in the ninth and 10th innings. St. Louis won it on David Freese’s home run in the 11th before clinching the championship in Game 7.
6. OHIO STATE: The school learned in January that Jim Tressel, who coached the Buckeyes to their first national title in 34 years, long knew about transgressions and had violated NCAA rules by not reporting them. On May 30, he resigned under pressure.
7. MAVERICKS WIN: Five years after blowing a series lead in the NBA Finals to the Heat, Dallas and Dirk Nowitzki got revenge and redemption against Miami.
8. WHELDON DIES: Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon, 33, was killed Oct. 16 during IndyCar’s season finale in Las Vegas in a fiery 15-car crash.
9. SYRACUSE: Less than two weeks after the Sandusky charges, ESPN reported that two former Syracuse ball boys accused longtime men’s basketball assistant coach Bernie Fine of molesting them.
10. WOMEN’S WORLD CUP: Their country devastated by a tsunami and earthquake, Japan beat the favored Americans 3-1 in the final.