A hero's life, a mortal's end: JoePa's 'grand experiment'

Some of them were there when Joe Paterno was fired just 64 days ago. These State College residents and Penn State students and alums gathered in front of Old Main last night to honor their JoePa in death.
Some of them were there when Joe Paterno was fired just 64 days ago. These State College residents and Penn State students and alums gathered in front of Old Main last night to honor their JoePa in death. (CLEM MURRARY / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: January 23, 2012

IN 1943, the Jesuit priest who taught Latin at Brooklyn Prep introduced a book-loving 17-year-old kid named Joe Paterno to the Roman epic that would change his life: Virgil's Aeneid.

But the young Paterno - whose ability to throw a football as adeptly as he translated Latin earned him a scholarship to the Ivy League's Brown University - did more than merely fall in love with the heroic exploits of Aeneas, who preached duty and battled the fates to build an "empire without end."

With his disarming mix of a lofty diploma and Brooklyn-bred blue-collar grit, Paterno showed up in the central nowhere of Pennsylvania in 1950 seemingly determined - perhaps unconsciously, perhaps not - to reinvent both the exploits and the ideals of the ancient Roman hero, but on the modern battlefield of football.

The tumultuous last plot twists and tortured final days of Paterno - who succumbed yesterday in a State College hospital to lung cancer at age 85 - left little doubt that the remarkable life of the winningest coach in major college history was an epic for a new millennium, worthy of the classic poets.

But will Paterno's odyssey be remembered for its long trail of heroic exploits that included not just gridiron glory but his one-of-a-kind commitment to the philosophy of the scholar-athlete? Or did the final shock of the child-sex-abuse scandal of his longtime assistant Jerry Sandusky rewrite the ending as a Greek tragedy, its hero undone by the prideful flaw of hubris?

Paterno and his huge following never doubted that his approach to both football and life encapsulated ancient virtues of honor, channeling the brutality of war into sport.

"The adventures of Aeneas seeped into far corners of my mind, into my feelings about what is true and honorable and important," Paterno wrote in his 1989 autobiography. "They helped shape everything I have since become" - including his insistence on keeping his Nittany Lions in plain blue-and-white uniforms with no name on the back.

Paterno became head coach at Penn State in 1966, just in time for the flood of upwardly mobile baby boomers who swelled America's public campuses, and he built on undefeated seasons in 1968 and 1969 to practically invent a new world in which the communal values of football became the vessel for a diverse university to unite in common purpose.

He pulled that off not only because his teams won Saturday after Saturday but because he supported it with an appealing philosophy that he called "the Grand Experiment" - which he called "first-class football played by students who put first-class lives first." Throughout his 45-year tenure as head coach, he backed that up as Penn State footballers ranked consistently at or near the top of the NCAA list of programs and their graduation rates.

His coaching pride on the sidelines appeared to be matched by his modesty off the field - the simple ranch house with the listed phone number, the unstylish Coke-bottle glasses and the white socks under black shoes.

In the years when the victories - including, finally, a national championship in 1982 and again in 1986 - piled up and fans in the ever-expanding Beaver Stadium easily could have forgotten "the Grand Experiment," Paterno - usually with his wife, Sue, by his side - doubled down on books. In 1997, the couple gave a whopping $3.5 million to endow faculty chairs and build an interfaith spiritual center on campus, and they raised millions more to expand the library.

Yet his love of the classics never measured up to his love of leading the Nittany Lions. As the legend grew and the thick-glasses visage of "JoePa" practically became the face of Pennsylvania itself - immortalized from coffee mugs to "Peachy Paterno" ice cream - the coach could not imagine any kind of life for himself away from the sidelines.

In 2008, CBS sportscaster Brent Musburger said that his friend Paterno was haunted by the specter of college football's rival coaching giant of the 1960s and 1970s, Alabama's Bear Bryant, who retired in 1982 and died of a massive heart attack 29 days later.

"He is a man that doesn't fish, doesn't play golf . . . he has no other interest other than his family and football," Musberger said in 2008. "And he's just afraid what would happen with the rest of his life if he walks away from it."

Penn State tackle Donovan Smith, recruited last year by Paterno, wrote on Twitter yesterday that the coach became even more blunt, telling him, "I'm afraid to stop coaching because I'll die."

Even as Paterno approached sainthood among Penn State's ever-growing rolls of alumni and students, there were the nagging naysayers who wondered whether Paterno's protection of both his job security and the Penn State image was starting to overtake "the Grand Experiment."

Complained a Penn State instructor and program critic, John Swinton: "In this town, he's a demigod, and what goes with that is that you excuse him from scrutiny." The campus disciplinarian quit in 2007 after Paterno's insistence on handling problems with his players his own way.

And that was before the tumultuous events of last November, when, in rapid-fire succession, the world learned that Sandusky - the defensive coordinator for Paterno's two national-championship teams - was accused of molesting 10 young boys; that Paterno learned of the issue in 2002, raising questions of whether he did enough to stop him; and finally the abrupt decision by PSU trustees to fire the coach before the end of the 2011 season.

That shock hadn't subsided when it was revealed that Paterno was suffering from lung cancer and undergoing chemotherapy. Complications from those treatments led to Paterno's rapid decline and finally his death yesterday. In a grim echo of Alabama's Bryant, he passed away just 64 days after his coaching career ended.

The outside world last saw Paterno in images from a Washington Post interview published last weekend - frail, in a wheelchair and telling reporter Sally Jenkins in a raspy, barely audible voice: "I wish I had done more."

Before he died, some online critics questioned whether Paterno had fully grasped the entire story of Virgil's Aeneas, which included the hero's ruthless violence and increasing pridefulness as he clung to the powerful empire he created. Wrote essayist John Lessingham on the website N+1: "It turns out, Virgil teaches us, that pietas" - or piety - "can legitimize savagery."

But most who knew Paterno are confident that both his good works - cast in brick-and-mortar across Happy Valley - and his good ideas about life and learning will long outlive the sad images of the last two months.

And that a poet named Virgil had provided the kid from Brooklyn a mature understanding of the struggle between fate and doing the right thing.

Wrote Paterno himself in his autobiography: "The winds of fate can turn you around, run you aground, sink you, and sometimes you can't do a thing about it. You can commit yourself to accomplishing a goal, doing something good, winning a game. Just to make that commitment to something you believe in is winning - even if you lose the game."

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