The New York Times goes inside the Jerry Sandusky investigation, finding that the break in the case was a random comment on the Internet.

A critical break in the investigation of Jerry Sandusky came via a posting on the Internet: a random mention that a Penn State football coach, years before, might have seen something ugly, but kept silent.

Investigators with the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office had by 2010 already come to the conclusion that Sandusky, the longtime defensive coordinator for Joe Paterno’s Nittany Lions, was a serial molester, according to two people with knowledge of the case. But what had started with a complaint of sexual assault from a high school freshman had grown to include another matter altogether: whether Penn State had acted to cover up Sandusky’s behavior, even crimes.

Working off the brief mention on an Internet forum where people chatted about Penn State athletics, according to the two people with knowledge of the case, investigators narrowed their list of coaches likely to have seen something to Mike McQueary, then an assistant coach and the football program’s recruiting coordinator.

So remember, Internet commenters, you provide service to society!

Read the whole story for information about missing files at the Second Mile Foundation, the fact that prosecutors didn’t arrest Sandusky in 1998 even after he admitted to a parent that he showered with her son and may have inappropriately touched him, and the deep suspicion that Penn State’s former coach Joe Paterno and President Graham Spanier knew nothing about the multiple investigations. Apparently the information was pretty well-known throughout college football:

Some investigators said they were convinced that the idea that Sandusky had an inappropriate interest in, and relationships with, young boys was a fairly widely held suspicion around and even outside Penn State’s football program over the years.

“This was not the secret that they are trying to make out now,” one person involved in the inquiry said. “I know there were a number of college coaches that had heard the rumors. If all these people knew about it, how could Sandusky’s superiors not know?”

That would explain why no coach offered Sandusky, one of the top coaches in his profession, a job after 1999, when he “retired” at age 55 to devote more time to Second Mile.

This is all moving along. After initially declining to investigate, the NCAA has opened a probe into Penn State, particularly how school officials handled the allegations (known as their “exercise of institutional control over its intercollegiate athletics programs”). Lack of institutional control is what triggered the death penalty for SMU football in the 1980s. Federal prosecutors may open their own investigation into Sandusky, particularly over charges that some of the assaults took place outside of Pennsylvania, on team trips to the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio and the Outback Bowl in Tampa.

Incidentally, let me say that I am extremely suspicious about the molestation allegations involving Bernie Fine, an assistant basketball coach for Syracuse University. Fine has been placed on administrative leave after two men alleged sexual misconduct when they were minors in the 1980s and 1990s. But there are a lot of inaccuracies and contradictions, Syracuse personnel investigated the case back in 2005 and could find nobody to corroborate it, and the whole thing feels entirely too neat. It should be investigated, of course, but I’d hold off on the rush to judgment on that one.

Finally, I’ll add Michael Berube’s essay in this morning’s NYT op-ed page on Penn State, where he is the Paterno Family Professor of English. It’s worth your time.