Your life is judged by the contents within the dash, that punctuation mark between the dates of your birth and death, respectively. But some observers will focus on Joe Paterno’s final months of life, a dizzying and tumultuous 78-day descent from revered legend to fired, deceased legend.
Ignoring the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal that ended Paterno’s 46-season tenure as Penn State’s head football coach is out of the question. The sordid details warrant prominent mention — high in any story or early in any broadcast — whenever we look back at Paterno’s reign. There’s no escaping the fact that a longtime assistant allegedly conducted heinous acts for years, right under JoePa’s nose in the football team’s facility.
The revelations contained in a shocking 23-page indictment are a threat to overwhelm Paterno’s legacy. That would be a mistake. Sandusky gave Paterno’s image a black eye, not multiple cuts and lumps with busted lips and a bloody nose.
Reasonable people can disagree on Paterno’s culpability and whether he deserved to be fired Nov. 9, roughly 12 hours after he announced he would retire at season’s end. Paterno’s supporters argued that he fulfilled his legal requirements when a graduate assistant, Mike McQueary, informed him of a sexual assault in the showers. If higher-ups didn’t do the right thing with the information Paterno provided, that was their fault, not his.
Unlike former officials Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, Paterno wasn’t charged with a crime. But he was guilty of a lesser offense that led me to support his immediate firing, though it wasn’t grave enough to overshadow everything.
In the end, Paterno’s biggest mistake was hanging on too long. It demonstrated everything that made him a great coach and a flawed human being: dedication and stubbornness; commitment and selfishness; perseverance and obtuseness.
He was no Paul “Bear” Bryant in that regard. Bryant coached Alabama for 25 years and was “only” 69 when he decided to retire after an 8-4 season. He said his players deserved better coaching than he was giving them. But few living legends walk away that graciously.
Eddie Robinson spent 57 years as Grambling’s head coach and had to be forced out in 1997, when he was 78. Florida State employed Bobby Bowden as its coach for 44 seasons but had to force him out in 2009 when he was 80. Bowden and Paterno spent nearly a decade battling for the most victories in NCAA Division I history, a title Paterno claimed last season (409).
It’s hard to blame Paterno for not knowing when to quit. He arrived at Penn State as a 23-year-old assistant in 1950 and never knew life outside of coaching the Nittany Lions. Power and prestige have a way of growing on you, and no one in Pennsylvania was more powerful or more prestigious than JoePa in the latter half of the 20th century.
There’s no evidence that he abused his might, instead using it to advance the university’s standing in academics as well as football. He demanded that his program achieve “success with honor,” almost to the point of self-righteousness. Fundraising became a personal mission, aided by more than $4 million of his money, as he helped the school’s endowment grow to an estimated $2 billion.
Those should be the highlights of Paterno’s mind-boggling run at Penn State: the victories, the library, the graduation rate.
But he couldn’t walk away when it was time, say, 2000 through 2004. The Nittany Lions won just 26 games over those five years, which included four losing seasons. Paterno has only one other losing season in his career (5-6 in 1988).
There were suggestions that he move on but he scoffed, sparking a debate on whether coaches such as himself and Bowden deserve to stay as long as they desire. Proponents argued that Paterno built the program and therefore had the right to retire on his terms.
Nonsense. Sadly, that line of thinking reflects the myopic viewpoint expressed by many Penn State alums since the scandal erupted. Hero worship of mythic coaches helps skews priorities on campus, where athletic departments and their academic equivalents jockey for position.