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