This mess at Penn State University just might be the most despicable, disturbing chapter in the entire history of American sports.

Sure, nobody's been found guilty of anything — yet. And until former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky gets his day in court, where he'll face 40 counts of child sexual abuse, perhaps it's unfair to convict him of any wrongdoing in the court of public opinion.

But this scandal has already served to severely tarnish the legacy of legendary Penn State coach Joe Paterno, who was abruptly fired 11 days ago after 46 glory-filled years at the Nittany Lions' helm.

The iconic Paterno got canned for failing to do no more than report the lurid allegations to his superiors after he was informed of them by another assistant coach, Mike McQueary, who reportedly witnessed a boy being sexually assaulted by Sandusky in a shower at the school in 2002.

Yes, Paterno passed the word along to his higher-ups about what he'd been told. But, when nothing was done, Paterno did the same — nothing.

He had a moral responsibility to make sure it was handled the right way but, like so many others at Penn State did, Paterno simply let people sweep it under the rug and remain in hushed silence over the disgusting allegations.

It cost him his job, and his legacy as one of sports' all-time good guys.

What a terribly sad, disappointing conclusion to such a great coaching career. Paterno, 84, won an NCAA Division I-record 409 games and two national championships at the Pennsylvania school. Five of his teams went unbeaten and untied.

But for as much as winning football games, Paterno's lasting legacy was one of being a guy who we could always trust to do things the right way. He didn't cheat or even bend the rules, the school maintained high academic standards and most of his players graduated, and he ran a squeaky-clean program that was the gold standard of how athletic departments in this country should try to do things.

Now, his glowing reputation has been ruined by allegations that he let his long friendship with Sandusky apparently override his obligation to make sure that the proper authorities were notified of the assistant coach's reported horrifyingly depraved habits — allegedly preying on young boys under the false pretense of helping them.

Sandusky even founded a charitable organization, The Second Mile, for troubled youngsters, although now it is being called into question as merely a way to provide Sandusky with easy access to vulnerable young boys, whom he often gave lavish gifts such as computers and bowl-game trips and had overnight sleepovers with.

Let's keep this straight. Paterno is not the wicked, evil villain here; Sandusky allegedly is. And Paterno is certainly not the victim here; those young, innocent boys who were allegedly abused by this perverted sexual predator are.

But if he allowed his former assistant coach to continue on his depraved path without stepping in and making sure that something was done to prevent it from happening over and over again, Paterno must indeed shoulder some of the blame in this sickening situation.

To put this in its proper perspective, try to picture this happening to the Beehive State's own, iconic football coach, BYU's beloved LaVell Edwards. Yes, it is absolutely unimaginable. We can't even comprehend such a thing.

Well, the people in central Pennsylvania and Nittany Lions fans everywhere feel the same way about JoePa that people in Provo, throughout Utah and the entire country do about Edwards, who's a genuine nice guy.

To add another ironic twist to this sad tale, Paterno was diagnosed with a treatable form of lung cancer the same week he was dumped as the Nittany Lions' coach.

To briefly recap the events of the last two weeks, Sandusky — who was once expected to succeed Paterno but retired in 1999 after being told he wouldn't get the job — was charged with sexually abusing eight boys over a period of 15 years. He admits showering with them but has denied the sexual abuse charges.

When the scandal initially broke, a shaken Paterno hastily announced he would retire effective at the end of the season and admitted the incident was "one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more," according to published reports.

He and the school president were fired the next day. Two school officials were charged with lying to a grand jury and failing to report the 2002 incident to police — one stepped down and the other is on administrative leave. McQueary also was placed on administrative leave.

The university is now conducting its own investigation into the case, and the NCAA announced Friday its own inquiry over the school's lack of institutional control.

It certainly makes those Ohio State players' free tattoos and Reggie Bush and his family's financial shenanigans at USC pale in comparison, doesn't it?

Joe Paterno certainly deserved better. But, most importantly, so did those young boys whose lives were changed forever in a terrible, twisted way.

And while Jerry Sandusky might get what he deserves, if he's found guilty, those boys will never really receive justice for what happened to them.