Paterno brought down by effort to preserve image of his Camelot

Posted: November 09, 2011

This was the image that was supposed to endure, the image that generations of trusting, ebullient Penn Staters had been raised on, the image that had not yet been sullied by the spreading stain of horrific scandal:

Out of the tunnel and into the golden glory of autumn sunlight they come, the ground shaking beneath them, legions of imposingly large young men, armored and helmeted and led by a feisty rooster of a man who punches the tart October air, exhorting them on, and you swear you hear the call of bugles, the fading echoes of the thunder of cannon fire.

 From where does this image spring? From the poets and the classicists who had mesmerized him as a young lad: "The Charge of the Light Brigade," The Aeneid, and Don Quixote. Through them was the making of Joseph Vincent Paterno into idealist, crusader, romantic, reformer, educator, motivator, philanthropist, champion of lost causes, sparring partner for windmills, an Ivy Leaguer, an English lit major coaching football, big-time football, and, oh yes, coaching it more successfully than anyone before or since.

Could canonization be far off?

And then, sadly, tragically, there came the shattering day no one had seen coming, the day the icon toppled, brought down by a failed and egregious attempt to preserve the image of his Camelot.

That image turned out to be fraudulent. And in his zeal to keep up appearances, Joe Paterno appears to have become a de facto enabler for an alleged sex predator, Jerry Sandusky, who had been a loyal lieutenant for years and had been considered a leading candidate to succeed Paterno as the head man for one of the most powerful and prestigious big-time football programs in the country.

The irony is, the tragedy is, in trying to keep his beloved school from suffering harm, Paterno had a hand in causing that very harm. When the scandal was brought before him, he reacted, but it was only the bare minimum, superficial, a shocking cover-up that flew in the face of all that he, and Penn State, had come to stand for.

The critics lined up eagerly for the chance to have at the Penn State hypocrites, whom they had long suspected and resented. St. Joe merely confirmed the notion that no one could be that clean, and this reaffirmed it.

He had come to the Valley of Happy intending to stay for only a little while. But it turned out he had found the perfect spot. Isolated, insulated, like being trapped in a time warp. Set apart from the rest of civilization. Rather like Camelot. A man could be king here.

And then one day you look up and the seasons have passed like whispers in the wind, and then the decades . . . where did they go? And the generations . . . his players became fathers, and the fathers - can that be right? - became grandfathers. Until, finally, you said to yourself: Well, we always thought he would coach forever.

And now, well, now we know just how long forever lasts. It lasts, alas, too long.

Joseph Vincent Paterno and the Pennsylvania State University . . . you can't have one without the other. Hard to tell which one has loved the other the most. Too much, as we have seen.

"You're either getting better, or you're getting worse," he would preach.

There was no third alternative.

He stayed just long enough to have the inevitable losing seasons, long enough for critics to grow impatient and grow in numbers and grow in volume, to issue that old reliable charge that the game had passed him by. He stayed long enough for him to grow old, not infirm but cantankerous and crotchety, to have good days and bad, moments when the wit is sharp and self-deprecating, and moments when the temper is quick to rise and the tolerance level is low.

He has, in recent years, fought back from broken bones and strength-sapping viruses, and by all accounts the lucid times outnumber any periods of confusion. The rest of us who creep closer to our 80s can feel a twinge of empathy.

We will not see his like again. He truly is a man for all seasons and, like everyone else, not without flaw.

One night some 40 years or so ago, a man offered Joe Paterno more than a million dollars to go to New England and coach the NFL team he owned. Paterno accepted, but then at dawn's first light woke his wife to say: "Sue, you just spent the night with a millionaire. Now it's back to reality."

It just didn't, he said, feel right. And thus was launched forever.

He stayed because he couldn't bring himself to leave, to leave the young and the impressionable, the ones you can have an impact on.

And vice-versa.

"I like being around kids," he would say, "because they make me feel young."

Yet it was kids, the innocent, who suffered at his well-meaning hands.

Meanwhile, the school's coffers have swollen, thanks to his football teams. And the arena, on his watch, has morphed into a monolith. Beaver Stadium had a capacity of 29,000 when he became head coach. Now 108,000 cram in, and flotillas of RUVs assemble days in advance, and the tribal campfires of Nittany Nation light up the night.

But it's not the stadium that makes the man beam. It is the library, for which Joe and Sue Paterno raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and gave of themselves.

When he had won his first national championship, Joe Paterno went to the school's board of trustees and made an impassioned plea for them to raise, not lower, entrance requirements and, oh yes, spend some - make that lots of money - on the library.

In other words, the coach fresh from another undefeated season was campaigning for a university the football team could be proud of.

Academics and athletics, he would say, need not be mutually exclusive.

For those of us who have known him for so many years, that is a credo worth keeping. We will wrestle with the rest of it.

After more than half a century in this business, I have hung around mountebanks and charlatans, preeners and peacocks, unassuming winners, gracious losers, and doers of deeds both great and small, with those who made it and those who fell agonizingly short.

Of them all, he would be the last one I would have expected this.

Let the healing begin.

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