Before last November, Joe Paterno’s legend was cemented. Now, remembering JoePa as the role model everyone hoped to becomes a little more difficult.
On the one hand, he devoted his life to the Penn State football team, the students, the university and the community as a whole, and was regarded as the supreme creator of what it meant to mold student athletes. Along the way, he won more games than any coach in college history. There was nothing he wanted more than to leave Penn State on his own terms, because he made it what it was.
But when he was stripped of his position in November for his silence amid the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, it forced us all to reexamine what we thought was the “Penn State” way of doing things, a standard he himself set. Everyone reacted with confusion and anger, and anyone who cared about football let out a collective “Say it ain’t so, Joe.”
Given the depth of the scandal, the many years it was said to have gone on and the seemingly top-to-bottom disregard the Penn State coaching staff and university leaders had for these innocent children, you may see the issue as polarizing, and most people will be quick to pick a side.
Former Oklahoma head coach Barry Switzer, who went through a series of morally questionable scandals himself, said in November that there was no way that Paterno and his staff didn’t know how deep this controversy ran. Switzer felt they had kept it a secret and insinuated Paterno should shoulder much of the blame.
“Having been in this profession a long time and knowing how close coaching staffs are, I knew that this was a secret that was kept secret,” Switzer said as the controversy unfolded. “Everyone on that staff had to have known, the ones that had been around a long time.”
To his friends, like current Texas head coach Mack Brown, the news yesterday was hard to swallow because of Paterno’s positives.
“I’ve known Coach Paterno since I started coaching. Sally [Brown] and I built a great relationship with him and Sue [Paterno] over the last 10 to 15 years, and we shared many great times. I know our lives are better because we had the opportunity to spend time with them,” Brown said in a statement. “He was a gift to us, and when we heard the sad news today, we both openly wept, not only because college football lost a great man, but we lost a great friend. I appreciate all of the advice, the attention and the time he’s given us over the years.”
Texas legend Darrell Royal echoed those feelings.
“What I remember about our days when we were both coaching is that Joe was very honest. He was a heck of a coach, and he was one of the outstanding coaches of all time,” Royal said. “You can’t say that about every coach, but you darn sure can say that about Joe Paterno. He meant a lot to the game, and he meant a lot to me. He was a solid person and a solid friend.”
For me, this column is hard to write because there truly are two clear sides to this coin, and it would be remiss to so quickly say there is a black or white answer to what Paterno’s lasting legacy will be. There is no denying his greatness. Anyone who devotes 46 years of his life to bettering an entire community is undoubtedly going to earn the esteem of most. On the other hand, Switzer’s comments echo something that I think everyone who knew him and the Penn State program knows but hates to have to admit.
From this though, we can learn one thing: the gray, ambiguous blob in which my feelings toward JoePa currently dwell has taught me that good people, all people, make mistakes. Some bigger than others, some that you may not even know you made and some that can’t even be forgiven. The lesson here is to never put heroes too high on a pedestal, because even icons like Joe are fallible. For the side of us that is heartbroken, it is our own fault for writing his legacy before we gave him the chance to fall.
After the events of the past two months, this may be the best thing that could’ve happened to JoePa. His heart was full of grief and the weight of the world he once happily lifted high above his head finally began to flex its muscles. Now he has a chance to rest in peace, and we have a chance to learn from both the immense amount of good and the painfully bad in his legacy.
Printed on Monday, January 23, 2012 as: Paterno's death, legacy sparks mixed response