TAMPA — Mayor Bob Buckhorn is a careful politician, so it was a little surprising to see how openly and unapologetically he rooted for Penn State against Florida in the last Outback Bowl.
At the time, Buckhorn was fighting for his political future in a five-candidate primary in the mayor's race. A few people around Tampa even whispered, doesn't this guy know some undecided voters are Gators?
Buckhorn graduated from Penn State, Class of 1980, but it was more than that. Penn State was Joe Paterno, and Paterno has been a friend of Buckhorn's family for eight decades.
Buckhorn's mother, Rita, and Paterno grew up on the same block in a half-Irish, half-Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn. As the football coach grew in prominence, Penn State was always a presence in the family. On Buckhorn's first day of college, his mom walked him into Paterno's office and said, "Joe, take care of my son."
At Penn State, the 145-pound Buckhorn played lacrosse, not football, and had only occasional contact with Paterno.
"I would see him periodically on campus, and I would always remind him who I was, and he was always very friendly, always asking about my uncles and my mom, and the families and the kids and the cousins," he said. "I never asked him for anything, never wanted anything, never needed anything from him. But I knew if I needed something, he would have been there for me."
So it was with dread and horror this week that Buckhorn watched Penn State's sexual abuse scandal consume a man who has loomed large in his life.
"From shock to sadness to acceptance to disappointment," the mayor said of his reaction. "I was totally blindsided by it."
Now he is disappointed — as he believes Paterno is himself — that Paterno didn't do more, that everybody didn't do more, when they first heard the allegations.
"The two pillars in my life, other than my family, were the Catholic Church and Penn State, embodied in Joe Paterno," he said. At both, "good people chose to look the other way, with catastrophic results."
Buckhorn didn't know Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant coach accused of sexually assaulting a series of young boys. In an interview in his office this week, Buckhorn's voice was calm, his tone thoughtful and reflective. But when Sandusky's name came up, he began quickly snapping the catch on a ball-point pen.
"They ought (snap!) to put him in (snap!) an institution (snap! snap!) where (snap! snap!) he's going to get exactly what he deserves," he said. "You can't punish him enough for the crimes that he's committed."
When asked about the leadership lessons he takes away from the scandal at Penn State, Buckhorn mentions his daughters, ages 6 and 10.
"I had a conversation with my kids the other day when all of this was going on," he said. "Because of me they follow Penn State and they know all about Coach Paterno, and they were watching the news."
Buckhorn, 53, said he tried to explain to them how important it is to do the right thing every time, to speak up and take a stand whenever you see someone doing something wrong.
At his beloved Penn State, "they didn't take action and as a result a lot of young children were hurt," Buckhorn said. "That blame lies squarely on those who chose not to take action."
Times staff writer Sue Carlton contributed to this report. Richard Danielson can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403.