Horrific closing chapter shouldn't overshadow Paterno's entire career
It seems the longer a legendary coach stays on the job, the slimmer his chances become to exit on his own terms. Woody Hayes won 13 Big Ten titles at Ohio State, but his tenure ended overnight after he punched a Clemson player on national television. Bob Knight won three NCAA titles at Indiana, but he was eventually fired for choking a player in practice, then violating a zero-tolerance policy by grabbing a student's arm. Bobby Bowden single-handedly built Florida State into a national power, but he was forced out when his program sunk into extended mediocrity.
Joe Paterno, Penn State's iconic head coach of 46 years, was fired Wednesday by the board of trustees. He wasn't ousted because he's 84 years old and in the last year of his contract, but rather because he was one of many who failed to turn in alleged pedophile Jerry Sandusky to the police. We knew Paterno would leave eventually, but we could never have fathomed his career ending this way. The circumstances surrounding Paterno's exit are far uglier and more disturbing than Hayes' sideline punch or Knight's burst of anger. They render Penn State's 8-1 record this season as irrelevant as Bowden's final 7-6 campaign. People are rightfully disgusted by the allegations against Sandusky, and Paterno admitted in his brief statement Wednesday "I wish I had done more."
In the weeks, months and years to come, there will hopefully be justice -- long overdue justice -- for the untold children Sandusky allegedly victimized. A university investigation will unseat all those it finds accountable, including president Graham Spanier. A jury will determine the fate of Sandusky as well as the fates of former Penn State athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz, the two officials charged with perjury. And the court of public opinion, which to this point has largely been bloodthirsty and venomous, will continue to have its say on Paterno. He will never escape the stigma of his career's final sordid chapter.
But while it's hard to see the bigger picture in the middle of the firestorm, it's also shortsighted to think that history will entirely forget the rest of Paterno's 46-year career. Some may find that taboo to say at this particular moment, when the news of Sandusky's alleged crimes is still fresh and many are still waiting for Paterno to fully address what happened in 2002. People aren't ready to put down the pitchforks just yet, and I'm not saying they should.
And yet, distance and perspective will eventually create a more nuanced legacy. The record will show that Paterno won more games than any other coach and that his teams annually graduated more players than any other public school. Video clips and photos will forever immortalize his black shoes and spectacles. The library on Penn State's campus, for which he helped raise $13 million, will still stand, and a university to which he devoted not only his entire adult life but $4 million of his own money will continue to educate generations of students.
And five decades of former players who went on to achieve their dreams will be here to remind us of how Paterno affected their lives. On Tuesday, Adam Taliaferro -- the former Penn State cornerback who was paralyzed by a hit in 2000 and at whose bedside Paterno held vigil when Taliaferro was told he may never walk again -- was elected to public office in Gloucester, N.J. There are thousands of other men currently excelling in their chosen fields who would be quick to share how their experience under Paterno helped them get there.
Paterno won 409 games and two national championships, but he also helped transform a rural college in a remote Pennsylvania town into a nationally respected institution. It may sound disingenuous now in light of current events, but "The Grand Experiment" -- Paterno's self-professed vision upon his 1966 hiring to prove that a program could excel both on and off the field -- served as a model for coaches of all levels of every sport for decades thereafter.
He used his platform to raise awareness for the plight of black athletes in the 1960s and '70s; he was a constant advocate of NCAA reform; he spent 40 years pushing (unsuccessfully) for a college football playoff; his early '90s push for Penn State to join the Big Ten -- a seemingly bizarre move at the time -- proved to be visionary; and he was the impetus for the Big Ten (and in turn the rest of college football) implementing instant replay.
Paterno had his flaws back then, too, but we were too busy deifying him to notice. They became more evident as he grew older and his "senior moments" often became too cringe-worthy to dismiss. His program endured a spat of player arrests in the early 2000s, for which he assumed almost no responsibility. Prior to the 2006 Orange Bowl, he tastelessly made light of sexual assault allegations against a Florida State player. We came to recognize that Paterno, in his 70s and 80s, lacked the generational and cultural awareness of his peers, but Penn State let him keep coaching out of deference to his legacy. That proved to be an enormous mistake.
No question, Paterno should be held accountable for his inaction in the Sandusky saga -- as should a whole lot of other people who had a chance to stop this tragedy. It would be an injustice to the alleged victims to ever forget Paterno's failure to prevent future crimes. But it would also be a disservice to the thousands upon thousands of lives he positively impacted if that mistake erases 46 years of good from the history books.
We will remember Paterno both as the coach who we thought served as a moral standard-bearer for 40-plus years and as the coach who bore responsibility for a reprehensible moral breakdown at the end. Those memories are not mutually exclusive. They can coexist.