Joe Paterno is gone, but our struggle with his legacy endures

Statues are made of bronze. People, alas, are flesh and blood. (AP photo)

Statues come in bronze. People are more complicated. (AP photo)

In death as in life, timing matters. Had Joe Paterno died Jan. 22, 2011, he’d have been hailed as the one coach who’d negotiated the murky waters of contemporary college football and left, both his sport and this world, with dignity shining. Every obituary would have included, no further down than the second paragraph, the line: “He did it the right way.”

But Joe Paterno died Jan. 22, 2012, and today every first paragraph is duty-bound to mention of his forced departure from Penn State 2 1/2 months before his death, a departure triggered not because some recruit was given a new car but because a longtime assistant coach was indicted for child sex abuse.

Joe Paterno took two national championships, won more games at the major-college level than any other football coach and never saw his program penalized by the NCAA. Had he died at age 84, as opposed to 85, we would have mourned his passing while celebrating a life lived about as well as is humanly possible. Today the response is more muted and infinitely more jumbled.

We cannot reduce the non-action that cost Paterno his job and a chunk of his legacy to asterisk material; at the same time, we cannot in good conscience say that one mistake, even one of massive dimensions, should outweigh the good done in a life of 85 years.

In the 2 1/2 months between Jerry Sandusky’s indictment and his employer’s death, we’ve had the chance to review our feelings toward Paterno. Was he enabler or scapegoat? Was he a villain for not speaking up louder and sooner, or was he a victim for being shunted aside in the wake of a media storm unprecedented in American sports? Was he a good guy who’d done a bad thing, or was the thing he did — or, in this case, didn’t do — so bad that all claims to goodness were forfeit?

We’ve had 2 1/2 months to reconsider, and we might need 2 1/2 decades to reach any consensus. The allegations against Sandusky triggered such a visceral response that it was possible to hear an ESPN commentator insist that Paterno should be locked away in a jail cell next to his former assistant. For the crime, we can only presume, of not doing the right thing. But if not doing the right thing every moment of every waking hour constituted a felony, none of us would be free today.

The belief here is that Paterno erred because he came to care more about his legacy than about people. The man who’d made “Success With Honor” his credo was handed a loaded choice: Do I speak up, knowing full well that speaking up will stain a program I’ve spent more than a half-century nurturing, or do I keep quiet and hope the storm passes?

Indeed, Sandusky did resign as defensive coordinator in 1999, a year after Penn State investigated him for showering with a minor. (I will never believe thatSandusky wasn’t pushed aside.) But he never quite went away, and it was a 2002 incident — witnessed by then-grad assistant Mike McQuery, who reported what he saw to the head coach — that brought the Paterno and his proud program low.

Maybe if  Paterno hadn’t been hailed as a paragon of virtue — if he’d been a football coach of more dubious portfolio — our shock and disappointment wouldn’t have been so pronounced. We expected more of him, but how many among us would have done differently had the loaded choice been ours? (Oh, we can say we would’ve, but virtue is easy to proclaim when it’s not yours on the hook.)

And now Paterno is gone, leaving us more confused than ever. Had he died a year ago, the charges against Sandusky would have still come to light, but they wouldn’t have been placed so squarely on Paterno’s shoulders. He wouldn’t have been fired with two regular-season games remaining in his 46th season as head coach, wouldn’t have precipitated such a debate within us all. Had he died a year ago, the obits would have been easy to write. They just wouldn’t have been complete.

A year ago we’d have canonized this man as St. Joseph of State College, Pa. A year ago we’d have said he did it the right way and left it at that. Today we must rewrite that line to reflect the complexity that enfolded this life the same way complexity enfolds all human life. Today we must say of Joe Paterno: “He did it the right way — except for the one time he didn’t.”

By Mark Bradley

307 comments Add your comment

Benjamin

January 22nd, 2012
4:00 pm

Dont wanna be first for the first time ever.

That said, good read. And RIP, JoePa.

Fazemike

January 22nd, 2012
4:02 pm

Benjamin

January 22nd, 2012
4:02 pm

Enter your comments here(You really did nail it in this one, Mark. All emotions. Good piece.)

Mark Bradley

January 22nd, 2012
4:02 pm

Understood, Benjamin. And thanks.

put me in coach

January 22nd, 2012
4:04 pm

jkidd

January 22nd, 2012
4:06 pm

you in the media never seem to get it right. you brought this on and when the dust settles you’ll find the governors fingerprints all over this. This affair was about a retired assistant. not the school, not the football program but one sick person. you in the media and the clowns in the BOT have done the true damage. from your self righteous perch you will never get it. the so calle dnon action was less then the governor’s as ag and the sitting ag. why don’t you ride your high horse into the govrernor’s staff and actions and see what you find.

jeffrey d

January 22nd, 2012
4:10 pm

Thanks, Mark.

I think Paterno will be remembered way more for all he did on the field than for this Sandusky thing. It’s just still big to us because it’s still fresh.

jeffrey d

January 22nd, 2012
4:12 pm

If he’d done what Sandusky did, then yeah…of course his legacy will be tarnished. But when you weigh most wins by any coach vs. not following up on something his former assistant did, his legacy is clear.

phil

January 22nd, 2012
4:13 pm

Mark – you helped lead the charge against this man. You know it. We all know it. I like you and have for all of your years here, but i do not like the way you, Schultz and so many others villified this elderly man with little on which to base anything other than knowing had you tried to defend the man while things played themselves out, you would’ve caught a lot of grief for it.

That’s no excuse for the way you guys ripped him to shreds. I don’t care how many excuses you all come up with. Even as he was clearly dying, no apology from any of you for contributing to ruining his reputation. Not one.

I don’t and will never understand going right along with mob mentality on things like this when you have so little on which to go.

May Mr. Paterno finally rest in peace.

Ray

January 22nd, 2012
4:15 pm

I’m sadden that he died in fact I honestly think this is a broken heart type of case. Couldn’t die doing what he loved coaching no matter how bad Penn St. was one year I’d still look at them why cause Mr. JoePA was there and you would think they end up better regardless, and honestly if I was a football player Penn St. would have been my next school after UGA.

72 Million Bust

January 22nd, 2012
4:15 pm

Flacco sure is making CHOKE look like a bigger BUST!

It's A Sorry World

January 22nd, 2012
4:16 pm

I think you failed to consider that Coach Paterno DID turn this over to the proper authorities. Did you know that the campus police is the ONLY police force for College Station?.This very unusual power was granted by President Eisenhauer while his brother was president of the college. Coach Paterno reported this to the head man of the police on campus. Perhaps he should have followed up and asked what is going on guys? Painting a broad brush populist opinion is not good journalism in my humble opinion.

todd grantham

January 22nd, 2012
4:16 pm

I agree with you on your assessment that the Coach became blinded by his perception that one “unfortunate event” should not stain his liftetime’s work.

Was it loyalty to Jerry Sandusky or Joe Paterno?

He was still in the wrong

January 22nd, 2012
4:18 pm

I agree that his legacy is tarnished—no, he did not do the heinous things that Sandusky is accused of, however, when told of the actions witnessed, Sandusky should have been forever banned from Penn State University. The fact that he remained around the program up until very recently, often times bringing young people from Second Mile to practices with him, screams that something just isnt right.

Beast from the East

January 22nd, 2012
4:18 pm

“We cannot reduce the non-action that cost Paterno his job and a chunk of his legacy to asterisk material; at the same time, we cannot in good conscience say that one mistake, even one of massive dimensions, should outweigh the good done in a life of 85 years.”

Well stated, Mark. Mixed emotions on this, but college football lost one of the great ones today. It’s unfortunate that he will always have the Sandusky scandal attached to his name, but in many ways that was a self-inflicted wound.

todd grantham

January 22nd, 2012
4:19 pm

as painful as the Sugar Bowl loss was in ‘82 for Georgia, we could take solice in that we thought a great person in Paterno had won it.

todd grantham

January 22nd, 2012
4:20 pm

I hope Sandusky is content. He, as much as anything or anyone, is responsible for Paterno’s death.

Nice Work Bradley

January 22nd, 2012
4:20 pm

There is nothing good about what happened at Penn State and I hope Sandusky is strung up by his little brain, but it is classless to piss on Paterno’s grave Mr. Bradley.

jeffrey d

January 22nd, 2012
4:21 pm

He, as much as anything or anyone, is responsible for Paterno’s death.

That and cancer and being 85

phil

January 22nd, 2012
4:21 pm

Mark, you and most have been dead wrong on coach paterno from day one.

You knew nothing and joined a lynch mob for reasons of political correctness, nothing more.

I hope your treatment of him causes you some pause before you do it again.

football fan

January 22nd, 2012
4:22 pm

I really respected Joe Pa until about 12 years ago when he should have retired. I do think his model up till about then was the right way to it and represented what has been lost in the coaching profession in most big football program schools. But staying on as long as he did was narcissistic and selfish. He had not been doing the best thing for Penn State for many years. I think somewhere along the way, Joe lost his ability to clearly reason (maybe age related), irrespective of the Sandusky situation.

phil

January 22nd, 2012
4:24 pm

I think penn state was 8-1 or so when the morons fired him…

That’s not the record of one who should’ve been canned or just for being 85.

Beast from the East

January 22nd, 2012
4:27 pm

I have long respected and admired Joe Paterno, but you people painting him as some sad figure in this whole sordid mess aren’t being realistic. Joe Pa literally answered to no one at Penn State. He did what he wanted and was in charge of the football program in it’s entirety. Heck, he even tried to dictate the terms of his resignation at the end before consulting with anyone at Penn State. How can a CEO that surrounded himself with his people pass the buck?

Dawg '88

January 22nd, 2012
4:30 pm

Remind me again….did he keep the incident quiet? No.

Remind me again…did was he the one who abused those kids? No.

Remind me again….how do we know he was protecting “his legacy”? We don’t .

So…the legacy is….he was a great leader, great coach, loyal servant to the university, humble man, and a man of character…Period!

The only ones wanting to tarnish his leagacy have always had a distaste for Penn State football and JoePa’s popularity. Sad…people can’t even be objective in a time of mourning for his family.

This article should have never been written. Or at the very least should have waited until after his burial. Its insensitive and poor timing to do this on day when the mans family is sorrowful and in mourning.

Besides…the judgement here is irrelevant. The true measure of the man will be determined by his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Anyone else is unqualified and ill informed.

Ray

January 22nd, 2012
4:31 pm

@ Phil

I know right in fact 8-1 would be great for many programs currently struggled bet you Texas would love that and finish a tad higher or most Pac-12 teams even a few SEC teams lol.

Steve

January 22nd, 2012
4:33 pm

Today we must say of Joe Paterno: “He did it the right way — except for the one time he didn’t.”

With all due respect to both Joe and Mark, I do not accept your summation.

OkieDawg

January 22nd, 2012
4:34 pm

Good article Mark. I haven’t been able to sort out my own thoughts, other than to hate both Sandusky and what he did. I do know I have spent my life admiring Joe Paterno. I depend on God to sort it out. But in my heart I know Joe was a good and honorable man. And I believe Joe will be rewarded by a good forgiving God.

phil

January 22nd, 2012
4:35 pm

He was only a sad figure because of how he was treated, thanks to the endless calls for his firing by Mark and other journalists who clearly don’t believe in giving an icon a chance to defend himself.

He had earned the right for a little more slack in the ole rope.

His treatment was embarassing to me, and i will never pull for that school again. Ever.

After Dallas fired Landry, same deal. Very different situations obviously, but i’ve never once pulled for em since and won’t until the imbecile owner jones is long gone.

Jedi Falcon

January 22nd, 2012
4:38 pm

Mark – this obit to Paterno is darkly shadowed way too much of the Sandusky scandal. If anything is to be written the day after this man died, then it should be to glorify his accomplisments, his life, and his legend – and not darkened by the vile actions of his assistant coach.

Reading this makes everyone think less of Joe Pa than what was necessary. The man was/is a legend and that is all that should be written of him in his death.

Runnin with the Dawgs

January 22nd, 2012
4:38 pm

Rest in peace Joe Pa. As far as your legacy, that’s a Pennsylvania thing.

phil

January 22nd, 2012
4:38 pm

Well said, dawg 88….

God knows the deal better than lynchmob writers do.

And i like Mark and always have. I’m just sick that he felt like he had to join the others in a mindless assault on an old man’s job. I would resign before doing something like that.

Master

January 22nd, 2012
4:39 pm

May the bastard burn in hell!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! He knew those kids were being molested and he covered it up. Dont Americans have no shjame?????????????????///

katherine

January 22nd, 2012
4:39 pm

His legacy will always be tarnished for what he failed to do…..it is what it is. My condolences to his family….

Jedi Falcon

January 22nd, 2012
4:41 pm

This is definitely not one of my favorite articles from you, and I think you could have re-thought this article better. Give Joe the respect he deserves – and leave the rest of circus sideshow out of it.

katherine

January 22nd, 2012
4:41 pm

Very good article Mark.

Beast from the East

January 22nd, 2012
4:41 pm

“Reading this makes everyone think less of Joe Pa than what was necessary.”

Not “everyone”. This article doesn’t change my opinion of Paterno one way or the other. He was one of the all-time greats and he tried to do it the right way. That said, his legacy (along with Penn State’s) will forever be tarnished for enabling Sandusky.

phil

January 22nd, 2012
4:42 pm

And i think it’s obvious that Sandusky is a horrible person.

That said, let’s get him convicted before we shoot him between the eyes. It’s what separates us from so much of the world.

You media folks tried, convicted and canned Paterno in a virtual vacuum. It’s just not right, period.

Master

January 22nd, 2012
4:43 pm

May he burn in hell

Master

January 22nd, 2012
4:45 pm

He knew kids were being molested and he kept it a secret. Praising this guy is like worshiping Satan.

phil

January 22nd, 2012
4:45 pm

Classy, master, classy.

May you get the help you so deperately need.

Buckhead Bulldog

January 22nd, 2012
4:46 pm

Right on Dawg ‘88! My sentiments exactly.

phil

January 22nd, 2012
4:46 pm

Sigh….

Another know it all who thinks he was there.

Dumbo

January 22nd, 2012
4:48 pm

I just hope he can rest in peace. Now to all the holier than thou art and sanctimonious know it alls; one day you may be challenged to make a decision about a friend or coworker after you see or hear something that is very distrubing. Remember how you groaned and second guessed JoePa for not immediately calling the police about Sandusky. Then lets see how you’ll handle being the one to make the call or not! Go with God old Coach.

katherine

January 22nd, 2012
4:51 pm

If any of the boys that were molested after jo pa knew and didnt do anything to stop it were your child, you would think totally differently about it. I’m sure Jo Pa wouldnt have had to struggle with it so much if it was one of his grandkids……………….

truth justice

January 22nd, 2012
4:52 pm

the trustees of PSU did not have ALL the facts before a rushed decision was make, it is a shame that this great man did NOT give his account, the PSU trustees made a grave mistake by rushing and each trustee acted as judge and jury WITHOUT ALL the truth and I hope the punishment of every trustee that day will be severe; the truth will prevail about PaPa Joe.

katherine

January 22nd, 2012
4:53 pm

read the grand jury testimony “truth justice”

phil

January 22nd, 2012
4:53 pm

That’s well said, Dumbo.

Thank goodness there appear to be plenty out there who can respect the notion of giving someone a fair shake.

Vince

January 22nd, 2012
4:54 pm

Two of the lowest points in college sports history:
1- The Penn State trustees firing Joe 2 games before his announced retirement.
2- This putrid article by Bradley.

Beast from the East

January 22nd, 2012
4:56 pm

katherine,
I don’t think anyone who read the testimony would be rushing to ANYONE’S defense associated with the Penn State football program. They ALL knew Sandusky had a thing for little boys. The football players even joked about it.

phil

January 22nd, 2012
4:57 pm

Some people who don’t have kids love to talk about how others would feel if it was their child that was abused this way….

That has been taken into consideration.