Paterno's legacy question

Former Penn State head coach Joe Paterno and university president Graham Spanier were fired over...

Former Penn State head coach Joe Paterno and university president Graham Spanier were fired over their handling of a sex abuse scandal. (REUTERS/Scott Audette)

John Kryk, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 2:35 PM ET

It all happened so fast.

First JoePa was fired. Then it was announced he was battling lung cancer. Now he's gone.

Penn State's Joe Paterno, the winningest coach in major college football history in the U.S. - and one of its most admired figures before being fired in disgrace just 74 days ago - died early Sunday in State College, Penn.

He was 85.

A week ago, Paterno was hospitalized as a result of complications from his lung cancer. There he apparently remained until his death.Before the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke in November, Paterno had been head football coach at Penn State University since 1966. In 46 seasons he won 409 games - more than any other top-level NCAA coach. He lost only 136 times and had three ties, for a sparkling .749 winning percentage. He won two national championships (in 1982 and 1986), won a record 24 bowl games, and earned a slew of personal awards and honours. His teams won with tenacious defenses (led by his famous linebackers) and conservative, smashmouth offenses.

Generations of college football devotees came to admire the unmistakably old-fashioned image of Paterno: a tough but big-hearted Italian-American with the dark slacks, black shoes, white socks, shirt and tie, short black hair, big nose, grumpy frown and ridiculously thick eye glasses.

Ol' JoePa was as plain and consistent as the uniforms his players wore.

But he didn't just care about winning football games. How many college sports coaches care so much about their school's academic standing as to donate more than a year's salary to upgrade the campus library? Or, as he did in the 1980s, to challenge the university to raise academic requirements for his athletes, not lower them?

"(Coaches) who jump all over the place deprive themselves of having an impact on their institutions," he told Sports Illustrated in 1986. "One thing I'm proud of is that. I think I've made a mark here."

Indeed, some observers believe he was more responsible than any other individual for Penn State's transforming from a modest agricultural school to a research university with international standing.

Unshockingly, Paterno was revered by Pennsylvanians. He once got a standing ovation at a Penn State basketball game merely for getting up to go to the bathroom. The Sandusky scandal did not dim their love for Paterno one iota.

Ah yes, the Sandusky scandal.

For years to come it promises to prompt a compelling, heated discussion whenever Paterno's legacy is discussed.

On the one hand, there is no denying that Paterno was an agent of good - on the game of football, on college athletics in general, for thousands of players he coached, and within the secluded, picturesque mountain town of State College that he'd called home since 1950.

On the other hand, his penchant for extreme secrecy and quest for on-campus power now have a sordid legacy, and threaten to trump all that good. "Some people never come around to liking him," Sports Illustrated wrote in naming him its Sportsman of the Year in 1986. "His critics deplore the secrecy of his program ... It's hard to get inside the program."

In a sad coincidence, the coach whose victories record Paterno broke - Paul "Bear" Bryant of Alabama - lived for only four weeks after retiring in 1982.

"I don't want to stay too long," Paterno said 30 years ago of his future in coaching. "Bear Bryant maybe stayed too long. I don't want to linger."

Paterno, of course, did linger. Throughout his final decade at the helm, there were almost constant calls for him to gracefully step aside, eventually even from Penn State alums, who did not wish to see their beloved coach hang on so long as to harm his legacy.

In the end, he most certainly did. To what extent is all that is debatable.

Under intense pressure from national American media, the Penn State board of trustees fired Paterno on Nov. 9, only hours after he'd announced his intention to retire at the end of the 2011 season. Paterno's longtime friend and former assistant coach, Sandusky, was arrested days earlier on serial child-sex-molestation charges.

The simultaneous revelation that Paterno had been told in 2002 about one of Sandusky's alleged sexual attacks on a boy was a bombshell.

Paterno legally and dutifully passed some version of that news up the chain of command. But he did nothing else. Millions of Americans were outraged that a man of Paterno's supposed high morality could do so little with such information; no one at Penn State even bothered to find out the identity of the poor kid.

The suggestion was that Paterno turned a blind eye - perhaps to protect his friend, perhaps to protect the reputation of his football team and university.

In his last interview published earlier this month, Paterno told the Washington Post he “didn’t know exactly" how to handle the situation in 2002.

"I never heard of, of, rape and a man...I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was,” Paterno told the Post. “So I backed away and turned it over to (university officials with) a little more expertise.”

As Sandusky awaits trial, these vital questions remain about JoePa.

Was he indeed protecting Sandusky? Did he know more than he ever let on about Sandusky's admitted infatuation with boys and alleged criminal behaviour all those years?

Or was Paterno's lack of action in 2002 merely Exhibit A that he already was no longer fit to be Penn State's head coach, let alone nine seasons later in 2011?

If Sandusky's trial or Paterno's confidants never provide the answers, JoePa's legacy might forever remain in flux.


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