I begin writing this at 7PM on the night of Saturday, January 21, 2012. Joe Paterno is reportedly in grave medical condition, with rumors swirling about whether or not he has been taken off a respirator, close to death, or even already passed – as some are apparently saying at the Penn State campus. Once Paterno does die, there will be an outcry unlike anything I have ever seen – both good, bad, and ugly. Many will mourn the passing of arguably the greatest, most-important coach in college football history. Certainly, there will be those who wish the man good riddance, charging him with the blame for the ugly sexual abuse scandal that has rocked Penn State University and college football as a whole over the last few months. And then, maybe, there will be some like me, who don’t really know what to think; who instead of judging the man, are instead in awe of the transformation of Paterno, Penn State football, and Penn State University as a community throughout the run of this story.
Months ago, my view of Paterno was similar, I’d imagine, to that which many college football enthusiasts who are non-PSU fans/alums had: a great coach through the years, a man who had overstayed his time, and one who was now a figurehead more than a coach. While I don’t know whether or not it has been confirmed or denied, I believed that Paterno no longer called the plays on the sidelines, no longer hit the road or sought out the nation’s top recruits, and no longer was heavily involved in the preparation each week leading into the Nittany Lions’ next game. It seemed that Paterno was stuck between a rock and a hard-place…or rather, between a rock and his own self. Everyone knew that it was his time to go (probably a year or two prior, even), and I’d imagine he did too. Instead, it seemed that he needed football; that he was saying to the world “I know I’m old, I know I might be in the way, but I don’t care. I built this, and I’ll see it as far as I can.” And while I guess I can’t blame the trustees, the President, and the Athletic Director of Penn State for not moving to oust Joe earlier, I can say (as one uneducated on the politics at Penn State) that I would have done it differently. Nonetheless, it was how it was, and the decision makers seemed content with things that way. “Out of respect, to Joe” was the understanding.
It seems like yesterday that, months ago, I was waiting for two friends outside on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston while checking the Twitter application on my phone. I came across a story from Yahoo! Sports about an investigation into a former Penn State football coach that had turned up sexual assault, cover-ups, and lying to grand juries. To be honest, I didn’t think too much of it. Yes, it was awful that a child had been assaulted, but surely there wouldn’t be too much to do with Penn State or the football program. Why? Because if nothing else, Joe Paterno was at the helm, and like Duke Basketball, while all the programs east of the Mississippi may have some type of scandal, those two won’t. They can’t. But sure enough, as details emerged over the coming days and weeks, it became clear and public that a massive travesty, embarrassment, and crisis had occurred of such a large proportion it is still tough to comprehend. As with nearly all cases involving sexual assault, reaction from the public was emotional and aimed directly at those presumed to be culpable – Paterno, the Penn State Athletic Director, President, and others involved (obviously, Jerry Sandusky included).
In the blink of an eye, Joe Paterno’s “legacy” – both at Penn State and within the game of football – was tainted. Whether rightly or wrongly, there is no doubting that he will no longer be talked of as the positive force that only six months ago was nearly guaranteed. As the situation continued to unravel, so too did Paterno’s health. His name was removed from awards named in his honor, just as information pertaining to a bout with cancer spread. He was sent to the hospital days after he was terminated as football coach by the university trustees.
Paterno, almost assuredly, will take his last breath soon, triggering a media circus which will inevitably present the question of “what is Joe Paterno’s legacy?” Many will focus on what he did on the field. Many will focus on what he did, positively, off the field. And many will focus on what has taken place over the last few months. To me, Paterno’s legacy will be a great coach; one who I hope influenced far more individuals positively than those hurt by his lack of immediacy, urgency, and arguable duty to do more. The fact that I must add the second part of that sentence is a great shame.