For so long, even as his hair turned from black to salt and pepper, even as several of his limbs were broken and battered when he stepped in the path of fully-geared gladiators nearly seven decades his junior, Joe Paterno seemed indestructible, more icon than man, as immutable as the Nittany Mountains near State College where he made his home for the better part of six decades. But when the end came, it came with such breathtaking suddenness that even non-believers must pause for moment to wonder if it wasn't part of some cosmic script. For the bare bones of Paterno's obituary read thusly:
Coach at Penn State for 62 years, the last 44 as head coach. Fired on Nov. 9. Dead on Jan. 22.
Joseph Vincent Paterno, the winningest coach in Division I football history -- a title that will likely endure given the transient nature of today's relationships between school and coach -- was 85. His death came two months after it was revealed he was being treated for lung cancer.
True, Paterno had started looking increasingly frail, he had been knocked around by various and sundry on-the-field injuries over the last few years, and lord knows he had lived a hundred lifetimes, given the pressure of big-time college football and the number of years that he was thick in the middle of it, his teams frequently near the top ... or expected to be. But the circumstances and controversy surrounding his dismissal -- triggered by the child-sex abuse scandal involving Jerry Sandusky, a long-time assistant -- will forever leave people, particularly his legions of admirers, wondering:
Would the end have come this soon if JoePa had left on his own terms, whatever those would've been?
Paterno's final chapter should, by the hardbound terms of traditional journalism, begin with the tawdry story of Sandusky, which colored -- nay, dominated -- the final three months of his life. But even most of those who have been critical (including me) of Paterno's failure to act when alerted about inappropriate behavior between Sandusky and an underage boy would agree that this extraordinary man deserves an obituary without mention of Sandusky, who is facing multiple charges of sexual abuse against children.
Alas, a Sandusky-less obit cannot happen. But put aside for a moment those last few tragic months and remember what Paterno meant to so many.
Joe Paterno was a full-fledged contradiction. He was born in Brooklyn and never lost that accent but came to Penn State by way of the Ivy League, a Brown English major/quarterback/cornerback. When he joined Rip Engle's staff in 1950 -- Truman was President -- no one had any reason to say, "Wow, there's a comer."
Paterno took the reins from Engle in 1966 and, at one level, the rest of the story could be written in this one sentence: He stayed. Well, a couple sentences really. The pros came calling -- the Steelers, Giants and Patriots, and he almost jumped at the latter offer -- as well as Michigan, and many other universities wanted him, too. But Paterno came to believe that he could do his best in State College, the name itself a fairytale-sounding evocation of an old-fashioned campus, where the athletes go to class, listen to the coach and play hard on Saturday afternoon.
That's exactly how Paterno saw it, or wanted to see it. He talked of his "Grand Experiment," his belief that you could obey the rules and still play top-flight winning football. Critics rolled their eyes, with some justification in later years as off-the-field incidents involving Penn State football players proliferated. But year after year Paterno's teams were near the top of the NCAA graduation rate -- around 87 percent -- and there was about the place an atmosphere of rectitude, the sense that things were being done correctly.
Covering Penn State was, in fact, like going back in time, not just because of the small-town feel of the place. I wasn't a regular on the college football beat, but on the occasions that I covered Penn State I remember Paterno stopping in to chat on Friday night meet-and-greets, wine and Lebanon bologna (you know what that is if you're from Pennsylvania) on the menu, small affairs, no slickness, no razzamatazz, the kind of environment in which Paterno felt comfortable.
The odd thing about his protracted tenure is that, as season passed into season and decade into decade, JoePa was known mostly for one thing: Being JoePa. He had great running backs and even greater linebackers, but Joe's legacy is not X's and O's or strategic innovation. His legacy is constancy. There's no way to measure this, of course, but I would guess that Paterno had no peers in this particular aspect of the college game: Walking into a recruit's home, schmoozing the family, and getting Mom, Dad, Grandmom and Grandpop to say the same thing after he left:
"Son, pack your bags for Pennsylvania. You're going to play for that man. He says what he means and means what he says."
The pinnacle of Paterno's coaching career probably occurred on Jan. 2, 1987 (just after Paterno was named SI's "Sportsman of the Year"), when his undefeated though sometimes unimpressive Nittany Lions pulled into the Fiesta Bowl as an underdog against the unbeaten and seemingly unbeatable University of Miami, a collection of trash-talking, fatigues-wearing iconoclasts. To the traditionalist -- and what traditionalist wasn't a fan of JoePa and his Coke bottle glasses, high-tide trouser cuffs and small-town-schoolteacher ways? -- the game was nothing less than Good vs. Evil. Good won, Paterno's defense stuffing the high-powered Miami offense 14-10.
But Paterno's influence extended beyond Beaver Stadium, which, incidentally, grew and grew (current capacity: 107,000) as he stayed and stayed. He and his wife, Sue, did real things, integrated themselves into campus life. They have given at least $4 million of their own money for various building projects, and one campus library bears the name "Paterno" because of their fund-raising efforts. I served on the board of Pennsylvania Special Olympics with Sue, a Penn State graduate, of course, and what I remember is when she came to a meeting, things perked up. She interrupted everyone, spoke her mind and got things done, her influence the result of two things: The force of her personality and the fact that she was married to a person who could've been elected governor had he been so inclined.
Did Joe stay too long? It wasn't a crime, it wasn't something worth shouting about, but, yes, he did. After a disappointing 4-7 season in 2004, Graham Spanier and Tim Curley, the college president and athletic director, tried to fire him -- actually, they tried to get him to resign, which sounds like the same thing, but, given Paterno's solid power base, is not -- but Joe said no. Then he went out and had a 10-1 season in 2005.
But by 2011 Joe was coaching a lot from the press box, and only the most ardent of JoePa supporters -- not that there aren't thousands of them -- would say that the game hadn't passed him by just a little.
Before the Sandusky revelations, Paterno had not announced his intention to retire. When the firestorm erupted and the Penn State Board of Trustees went into crisis mode, though, Paterno said he would be retiring at the end of the year. In other words:
At any other time, under any other set of circumstances, that would've been more than enough, tantamount to a burning bush appearing at the 50-yard-line of Beaver Stadium. But the heat was on in those charged moments that followed the shocking revelations that a graduate assistant, Mike McQueary, had told Paterno that Sandusky was engaged in improper sexual conduct in the shower with a young boy. By then even Paterno had admitted, "In retrospect, I wish I had done more." (What he had done was inform Curley, in some vague manner, about what McQueary had told him, and never followed up, even as Sandusky continued to appear around campus.) The board felt that it had to dismiss Paterno, partly, as it later said, because of his inaction. But I also believe that the board acted for fear that, with Paterno in charge, that weekend's game against Nebraska would've turned into a Paterno testimonial, something untenable amid revelations that children had been abused, probably on the Penn State campus, by a former employee who still had the keys to the locker room and virtual carte blanche to roam throughout the football facilities.
In his final interview, the only full one he gave after the firing, Paterno told Sally Jenkins of the
It is not for any outsider to say that death was the best outcome for Paterno, that he wouldn't have been able to endure a season without a whistle around his neck, that watching the Blue and White run onto Beaver Stadium every Saturday would've broken his spirit, that watching the ongoing, still-to-be-resolved horrors of the Sandusky scandal unspool before him would have been an unendurable heartache. None of that may have been true. He still had his loving wife, an extended family, the adoration of a legion of alumni and general Paterno fans who not only thought he got a raw deal from the trustees but also believed that he should've been allowed to jog onto the field in his old-fashioned high-blacks until he could jog no more. But Paterno's rapid decline after all that Sturm and Drang suggests a tale that is nothing short of biblical, the revered figure going to the grave after being cast out of the kingdom.
Let's try not to make it that, try not to look for victims or martyrs. JoePa was neither. He was not a perfect man, but he was a man who did more good than bad, someone who made a difference, someone who will be remembered. As news spread about Paterno's increasingly grave condition last Saturday night, students spontaneously gathered at Beaver Stadium, clustered around the seven-foot statue of him running onto the field, right index finger raised. Behind the statue is a plaque on which Paterno is quoted: "They ask me what I'd like written about me when I'm gone. I hope they write I made Penn State a better place, not just that I was a good football coach." He wrote his own epitaph.