Throughout his 46-year career, Paterno sent countless players to the NFL. He won two national championships. He always maintained a high graduation rate and admirable team GPA. He was the 1986 Sportsman of the Year. He was inducted into the college football Hall of Fame in 2007. To put it simply, he accomplished all that one could while roaming a sideline.
As of November, we were seemingly listening to the waning notes of the swan song of Paterno’s long, majestic career. He was well past his prime, but it was evident that he was set on ending things on his own terms. He was born to be the Penn State football coach, and as such, he would die still holding the whistle. There was something silently courageous about a legend taking his last breaths doing the very thing that had brought him immortality.
Given his age, the eventual death of Paterno had seemed imminent for years. That being the case, the final word on his career has been set in the minds of college football fans for a long time now. He was one of the all-time greats. It was him and Bear Bryant at the head of the coaching legends table. The name Joe Paterno would be synonymous with college football from now until the end of time. This seemed so natural that it had begun to feel preordained.
Beyond the statistical accolades and records, Paterno had always been about more than just winning. In a world that is inhabited by an abundance of snake oil salesmen and disingenuous charmers, he was a good man that ran a clean program. This was the bedrock that the JoePa mystique was built on.
However, on Nov. 4, this foundation crumbled under the weight of scandal. When former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was indicted on 40 charges of criminal child sexual abuse, the legacy of Joe Paterno was irreversibly changed. No longer was Penn State the clean, model program. Mired in the worst scandal in the history of college sports, Nittany Lion football became the symbol of corruption overnight. As the smoke cleared in the ensuing weeks, all that was left were the now-tainted accolades and records. The mystique was gone.
In these past days following Paterno’s death, the overwhelming debate has become whether or not this is fair. That is to say, should we judge Paterno, and in turn his legacy, so harshly for the actions of another man?
The simple answer to this difficult question is “Yes.”
The cruel irony of this latest installment to the Paterno legacy is that it so vehemently goes against the grain of all that JoePa supposedly stood for. He was as much a father figure to his players as he was a coach. While most great coaches hope for stadiums and practice facilities to bear their name, his is emblazoned on the Penn State library. Simply put, the legend of Paterno was as much about morality as it was football. Unfortunately, the image did not coincide with the reality.
With each detail that emerges from the investigation into Sandusky and Penn State, it has become increasingly evident that the cover up is intimately linked with the crimes themselves. The systematic self-preservation within Penn State football allowed Sandusky the freedom to evolve into the monster that he is today. Above all, Penn State officials valued the pristine legacy of Paterno over the sanctity of children’s innocence.
Considering the heinous nature of the crimes alleged against Sandusky, any complicity or involvement whatsoever equates to culpability in my mind. As a result, Paterno has as much blood on his hands as anyone other than Sandusky himself.
Because of this it is almost fitting that this scandal has destroyed Paterno’s legacy in the way that it has. While this may seem cruel given the timing, it does not diminish the truth contained within. Paterno was complicit in the widespread scandal. This is evident.
So, while we should mourn the death of the man, we should not shed a tear for the demise of Paterno’s legacy. Nor should we forget that it was not the cancer that put the final nail in the coffin. In tearing down the shroud of perfection that once surrounded Penn State football, Jerry Sandusky also killed the ideal that was once Joe Paterno.