Joe Paterno: The effigy and the legacy

Monday January 23rd, 2012

I've never been quite comfortable with the notion of raising statues in monument to the living. What if Tim Tebow retires from the NFL and takes a job as an assistant coach at Florida State? What will become of the larger-than-life metal version of Nick Saban should Tuscaloosa's generalissimo return to the pros to ply his trade? Right up to their last breathing moments, our idols retain the capacity to disappoint, merely by virtue of being human. When that happens, there's an over-sized hunk of bronze hunching complacently in all its craggy glory, and we idolaters are stuck with it.

That's a touch cynical, but it's my cynicism. I wasn't close to the Penn State football program, but if I'd been covering the team my entire career it still wouldn't be my place to dictate Joe Paterno's place in college football's pantheon. If I'd been on duty this past weekend, I would've churned out a piece that sounded a lot like what Gregg Doyel came up with. It's not up to us to tell you how to feel right now. It's not up to anybody.

Penn State students paid solemn tribute with a candlelight vigil around a statue of their own. Those with a bit more whimsy in their blood raised a statue of another sort. Erect elegant structures of prose, remember the era without any words at all or stumble over the spelling of the word "coach": The church of football's doors are thrown open, and all are welcome here. (The lone exception may be Jerry Sandusky's tacky statement on Paterno's passing, which we deem gross and unnecessary.) Before the break, we rang out the 2011 season by discussing just how inextricably personal fandom can be. Never more so, maybe, than right now.

Among the national voices trying to make sense of a tangly affair: Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post, who conducted Paterno's final and unsatisfying interview; SI's own Stewart Mandel, who examined "the sadness and the self-wrought tragedy of Paterno's final days;" and SB Nation's Bomani Jones, who spoke at length to former Nittany Lion LaVar Arrington. There's no merit in reducing Paterno's story down to its component parts, then picking one to stand for his mark on Penn State and the sport. Hewing out answers from spare facts and conjecture when we were left with so many hows and whys is a natural impulse, our way of making sense of this. But if Paterno's last interview was any indication, we may never have gotten that satisfaction. All the more reason to make do the best way you know how. Don't let me tell you different.

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