The news has just come out that Joe Paterno has died at the age of 85. One could say a broken heart was the cause of death, though the lung cancer that he was diagnosed with will likely be on the death certificate.
How to deal with his legacy? It’s too soon, of course. Time is the great equalizer and the ultimate judge, so we will see how history treats him. The numbers are all there: 409 wins, two national championships, countless players moved onto the NFL (perhaps over 350), a great graduation rate, and so on. He held more power in Pennsylvania than virtually anyone at one time. He earned the respect that he was given.
As a young man who grew up liking Pitt (because of a quarterback I watched on Saturday’s named Marino), I was hardly a JoePa fan. Or a Penn State fan. There seemed something so deeply sanctimonious about the whole thing, and JoePa represented that for me. Yet one had to respect what they built there.
Then it all came crashing down. Jerry Sandusky has become synonymous with evil, with Paterno had moved from being a cantankerous old coach who wanted everyone to get off of his lawn (albeit his lawn being Beaver Stadium) to being a forgetful old fool. A fool who allowed Sandusky’s crimes to go unpunished for years.
Paterno’s end at Penn State clearly hurt him. It should have, since he turned his back on a very bad situation. That clearly tarnished that legacy that we discussed above. Only time will tell how it develops. With the word of his passing, I find myself torn. Certainly I’m thinking of the news of the past few months and just how bad he looked for his handling of Sandusky. Yet I find I’m thinking about him and the Nittany Lions beating Miami in the Fiesta Bowl in 1987, and Georgia in the Sugar Bowl in 1983 – his two national championships.
I find I’m thinking of the man. The good, of which there was plenty. The football, which there was 46 years of as a head coach. I’m also thinking of the bad. Today I think we mourn, as we should. It shouldn’t have ended like this, yet he has himself to blame for that. As such, we should continue to think of the victims.
The way we (the media) handled his passing – beginning with the false news last night – was bad, but not unexpected in this era. It reminded me that, generally speaking, wait until the AP reports it. They waited and didn’t report the erroneous report. To their credit, neither did ESPN.
All of that adds a final, slightly ugly chapter to Paterno’s life.
Something about that, rightly or wrongly, seems almost fitting.