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Column: ‘After 61 years, he deserved better.’
Joe Paterno had barely hung up the phone when his wife of 50 years picked it up and redialed the number scrawled on the slip of paper.
“After 61 years,” Sue Paterno said to the man who had just fired her husband, “he deserved better.”
On the other end was John Surma, vice chairman for a Penn State Board of Trustees that couldn’t muster enough courage or decency to fire Paterno in person. Board members were desperate to stanch the tidal wave of bad news that followed the indictment of Paterno’s longtime former assistant, Jerry Sandusky, on multiple counts of child sex abuse just a few days earlier.
So an assistant athletic director knocked the front door of Paternos’ home that cold November night and wordlessly handed over the note with Surma’s name and a phone number on it. In that mercilessly brief call, Paterno was told that after nearly a half century as coach of the Nittany Lions, he was being fired “effective immediately.”
Like that conversation, the one that began with Sue Paterno’s call back didn’t last long.
“He deserved better,” she repeated, and then hung up.
Yes, he did.
And there may be no more fitting postscript for the life and career of a football coach, husband and father who became not just the face, but the unyielding, cantankerous soul of a school that over the course of his tenure was transformed from a “cow college” into a top-shelf public research university. Now all those people who rushed to judgment about Paterno’s role in the Sandusky case will have to find their way out from under the sordid scandal without the longtime coach.
Paterno, 85, died Sunday of lung cancer. Those who knew him well believe it was something more akin to a broken heart.
“The thing you hear about people who live long lives is that they were still passionate about something, still striving,” said Brett Conway, who played for Paterno before graduating from Penn State in 1997 and embarking on a six-year career in the NFL as a placekicker. “Once they took that away from him, a lot of us felt he was going to have a tough time surviving.
“I talked to a few teammates this morning and tried to think of something profound to say about the man who did so much for so many of us. But I can’t think of any single thing. … I had my 4-year-old daughter in my lap when the news came on and she asked me who Joe Paterno was. I told her he was my coach, that we called him JoePa and that he was one of the finest men I ever met in my life.”
In his quiet moments, Paterno occasionally invoked the fate of Bear Bryant _ another coaching legend who died within weeks after stepping down at Alabama _ as though it were some kind of cautionary tale. Yet he remained stubborn to the end, beating back more than one previous attempt by higher-ups at the school to force his hand, most recently in 2004. He kept insisting the game hadn’t passed him by, and that getting through to kids who weren’t as old as some of the sportcoats in his closet was no big deal.
In the only interview granted since his Nov. 9 firing, a frail and sometimes-foggy Paterno told Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post many of the same things he said when news of Sandusky’s indictment broke. Most important, that he wished he’d done more when assistant Mike McQueary came to his house on a Saturday morning in 2002, shaken by what he would later tell a grand jury he had seen the night before in a shower at the team’s football complex: Sandusky raping a young boy.
Except that out of deference to his aging and decidedly old-school coach, McQueary apparently withheld the most gruesome details from Paterno.
At the time, as in his last interview, it was a story Paterno couldn’t _ or wouldn’t _ comprehend.
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