It is unknowable how much of what took Paterno in the end was his age, the cancer, the chemotherapy, the withering illnesses that sap the elderly in winter, or the effects of the scandal. He always feared what would happen if he ever quit coaching and that might be a large part of why he never did. As others have also recalled, it affected him to the core when Bear Bryant died just weeks after retiring as the coach of Alabama. Paterno always said he was convinced the two things were linked.
Paterno didn’t retire. He was fired by the board of trustees, a group that now seems intent on justifying its actions to the public as a substitute for actually explaining their process. Whether Paterno should or shouldn’t have been removed is not the debate for this sad moment, anyway.
He will be remembered as a great football coach, among the best of all time. He will be remembered as a great philanthropist, giving away, along with his wife, huge amounts of money to charitable causes. He will be remembered as the greatest promoter of Penn State University, lifting the school with his vision of big-league athletics that can coexist with exceptional education. No one brought more attention to the campus and the institution than Paterno, so it is tragically ironic that the last skyrocket of attention did so much harm to the school and the coach himself.
Paterno came from a simpler time and that might have been his undoing. He preferred the early years when, if a player ran afoul of the law, he would take care of it himself and “run his tail off in practice.” He believed in a Norman Rockwell portrait of America that had long since fallen from the wall.
Just a week ago, he sat down with Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post to finally speak publicly of the scandal surrounding former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, and of the victims of Sandusky’s alleged crimes. Dogged in his convictions, Paterno summoned Jenkins back for a second day of interviews even though he had gone from a wheelchair to a bed and would soon be admitted to the hospital.
He repeated that he wished he had done more. He also said that it never occurred to him that Sandusky could have been doing what he allegedly was doing. Paterno said he couldn’t understand why anyone would do that, had never heard of that kind of thing. Fans and supporters will accept that explanation unconditionally. Others will always question that naïve world view from an unquestionably brilliant man who was a consummate politician on that campus.
He told Jenkins that he forwarded the unsettling information up the line to people – including his handpicked athletic director – who would “follow up.” There was no followup that removed Sandusky from campus and the tragedy was allowed to fester and grow for nearly another decade. Again, for fans and supporters, Paterno took the proper action. The other view is that it was one more successfully executed handoff.
There will be time to study all those actions and inactions, and there will be trials and investigations and commissions and reports. None of them will change the good things Paterno did in his life or the good he wished for the school. None of them will lessen the tragedy, either. It has unfortunately become permanently attached to his memory like a barnacle on the hull of an otherwise spotless ship.
Joe Paterno would tire quickly of all the praise that will be said in that memory in the next days and weeks. “C’mon. Get off it,” he would say. He considered himself just a football coach who tried to do his job the right way. And then he could pull a book from a distant shelf, turn to Browning, and recite that man’s reach should always exceed his grasp.
Paterno never worried about reaching too far, and now it no longer matters.
Contact columnist Bob Ford at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "Post Patterns," at www.philly.com/postpatterns. Read his past columns at www.philly.com/bobford