Share this article

print logo

So sad that Paterno left the way he did

The sad part was the circumstances surrounding the end of his life, not simply his life ending. Joe Paterno was 85 years old and was suffering from cancer, so his death Sunday was hardly shocking. His lungs had been failing, but I'll go with popular opinion: Paterno died from a broken heart.

Paterno will fade into history with several legacies, starting with his place as one of college football's greatest coaches and one of Penn State's greatest men. Unfortunately, his poor response and subsequent role in the child sexual-abuse scandal involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky will remain just beneath the surface.

What a shame.

Paterno was Penn State, for better or worse, until he drew his last breath. He ran a clean and honest program for most of his 61 seasons on the sidelines, including 46 years as a head coach. He was known for recruiting good kids who were good players despite the increased number of questionable characters who slipped into his program as he grew older and more detached from today's athletes.

"JoePa" had more pull than anyone in State College, a status that served him well but also contributed to his doom. Still, he made his life appear normal with his house around the corner from campus, a short walk to work from his middle-class neighborhood. If the first half of his nickname made him a man of the people, the second half made him a respected, grandfatherly figure on campus and beyond.

He emphasized academics over athletics and backed up his mouth with his money. He raised funds and added his own donation to a library wing, not a stadium, named for him. NCAA rules didn't guide him so much as his moral compass. It distanced him from the filth that infiltrated college sports as coaches gained immense power, their teams became multimillion-dollar corporations, and cheating became prevalent.

Paterno, it seemed, remained pure. He was given a special place in college sports with the likes of former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden and few others. He held himself to a higher standard and was above breaking rules in exchange for victories. He was immune to criticism and controversy unless you count arguments about him coaching at such an advanced age. Even that was just football talk for pundits and alumni.

After all, he was Joe Paterno.

He seemed destined for immortality with his 409 victories and 37 bowl appearances, both Division I records, and two national championships. His parade of players into the National Football League included 32 selected in the first round, but he would be hailed more for his leadership, class, selflessness, loyalty and charm. In a perfect world, his story would end here.

Instead, he will forever be linked to Sandusky because he turned a blind eye to allegations that his former assistant molested boys. Paterno spent more than six decades building an empire as an assistant coach and head coach. His image and his career crumbled in a matter of days that forever stained his legacy.

Months later, it's still difficult to comprehend how such an apparently righteous man could step aside and allow Sandusky to walk free on campus knowing what he had heard about him.

Paterno's inaction contradicted everything he supposedly stood against, and his failure to properly respond figuratively and literally led to his demise.

Perhaps he feared embarrassment and was trying to protect his university and his image. Maybe he lived by common but outdated practices of an older generation that swept problems under the rug. Perhaps he thought he was untouchable or thought the sex-abuse scandal was a problem for somebody else.

Maybe it's all of the above.

Paterno was diagnosed with cancer in November, shortly after he was fired. He lived for Penn State until he left Penn State, and you can't help but think that part of him died two months before he did.

That's the saddest part of all.

email: bgleason@buffnews.com