For this day, at least, and perhaps for many more to come, the bronze likeness of the winningest football coach in Division I history was transformed into Strawberry Fields, Graceland, the Capitol Rotunda. Pilgrims and well-wishers can be expected to visit the site on a daily basis now, with crowds sure to swell on autumn Saturdays whenever the standard 100,000-plus fans gather in Beaver Stadium to watch the Lions play on the lush, green field that someday soon might be named in Paterno's honor.
Tom Bradley, for 33 years a Paterno assistant and the interim coach for four games after Paterno shockingly was fired by Penn State's Board of Trustees on Nov. 9 in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal, spoke for many when he said that JoePa "will go down in history as one of the greatest men, who maybe most of you know as a great football coach."
Adam Taliaferro, the former Penn State defensive back whose rehabilitation from a potentially catastrophic spinal-cord injury in 2000 is one of the most uplifting chapters in his alma mater's rich football history, put it another way: "Penn State," he said, "has lost its heart. If [Paterno's statue] wasn't a shrine before, it definitely will be one now."
It is remarkable how something as inevitable as death can have such a transformative effect on the living. Was it only 2 1/2 months ago that Paterno was judged to be guilty of some level of moral turpitude by those who took a different view than Bradley and Taliaferro of his perceived involvement in the Sandusky scandal? The cover of the Nov. 21 issue of Sports Illustrated, showing Paterno strolling the sideline before a 2005 game at Michigan, had a headline that blared "The Failure and Shame of Penn State," and the story, authored by L. Jon Wertheim and David Epstein, characterized JoePa as a "despot" whose supporters were desperately "restitching at least a few strands of a badly frayed tapestry."
Criticized for group inertia in the 2 years since the state Attorney General's Office began to investigate Sandusky's alleged involvement with underage boys - a probe that went largely unpublicized until Nov. 5 when cops arrested the defensive coordinator of Paterno's national championship teams of 1982 and '86 - the 32-member board of trustees became galvanized. Within days, they had fired not only Paterno but president Graham Spanier, forced executive vice president Gary Schultz into retirement and placed athletic director Tim Curley on indefinite administrative leave.
Some who had previously derided Penn State's "success with honor" mantra as sanctimonious and self-serving, with Paterno at the forefront of the holier-than-thou façade, were quick - perhaps too quick - to depict him as a Sandusky enabler. And so the battle was joined, with accusers and defenders choosing either side of the Joe issue.
But, perhaps not unexpectedly, the fight for the hearts and minds of the Nittany Nation began to noticeably shift toward those in the pro-Paterno camp. Whatever suspicions there were about what he might have known about Sandusky were outweighed by mounds of evidence of his good and charitable deeds, from the high graduation rates and unshakable devotion of his players to the nearly $4 million he contributed to the school to which he had become instantly identifiable. It was as if the askew halo of "Saint Joe" was, bit by bit, being righted again.
Paterno loyalists are adamant that his firing was mishandled, at best, and orchestrated to make him appear a handy scapegoat, at worst.
He arrived in State College in 1950, a 23-year-old Brown University graduate whose idea was to serve as an assistant to coach Rip Engle for a couple of seasons while saving enough money for law school. That was the profession his father, Angelo, had envisioned for Joe as he filled in the time on his way to, say, the governorship of New York or maybe the presidency of the United States.
"I had no intention to coach when I got out of Brown," Paterno recalled in 2007. "Come to this hick town? From Brooklyn?"
But the hick town, and coaching, got into Paterno's head more than he ever could have imagined. He had this idea of conducting a "grand experiment," helping fuse athletics and academics in such a way that his new university could become nationally recognized in the classroom as well as on the field. So the scholarly young man who could read "The Aeneid" in its original Latin told a disappointed Angelo that he wasn't going to become an attorney, that his considerable energies might be put to better use instructing football players how to block, tackle and become better educated, more productive human beings.
"Whatever you do," Angelo replied, "be sure you make an impact."
So the son did just that. For 62 years, the last 46 of which, beginning in 1966, he served as head coach, Joe Paterno and Penn State essentially became one and the same. His players won, they went to class, they graduated and they left Penn State with the realization that the coach who had ridden them so relentlessly did so for their benefit, not for his own glorification.
But the glory came nonetheless. There were those five undefeated seasons, the national championships of 1982 and '86, the 409 victories. You could spark a lively debate among Penn Staters as to which of those title-game victories is the more memorable, the 27-23 edging of Georgia and Herschel Walker in the 1983 Sugar Bowl or the 14-10 stunner over Miami in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, when the Lions picked off five Vinny Testaverde passes. Sports Illustrated - yes, the same magazine that savagely castigated him when the Sandusky mess went public - named him "Sportsman of the Year" for 1986 for his role in making Penn State what his eventual successor, Bill O'Brien, would call "one of the crown jewels of college football."
Then the Sandusky scandal soiled Penn State's generally clean image, and Paterno's along with it. Media critics did what they often do, playing Monday-morning quarterback and taking Paterno to task for not being more aware of Sandusky's alleged heinous deeds against underage boys that presumably took place almost underneath JoePa's rather prominent proboscis.
Days after Sandusky was charged and it appeared that the end of the Paterno era was imminent, he announced that he would retire at the end of the 2011 season, saying he was "absolutely devastated" by the alleged abuse. The board of trustees, however, acted, and after a meeting and a late-night phone call, Paterno was fired. The dismissal set off riots in the State College streets.
His words that day, though, as he announced his retirement, are likely to echo: "It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more."
And then reports began to surface that Paterno's health was taking a turn for the worse. He was admitted to the hospital on Jan. 13 for what his family called minor complications from chemotherapy, the cancer having been detected on Nov. 18. A few weeks later, he broke his pelvis in a fall.
He returned to the hospital for the final time after finishing an interview with the Washington Post. Sitting in a wheelchair wearing a wig to hide the impact of chemotherapy on his once full head of hair, Paterno said that he was "shocked and saddened" by the sordid affair.
He also, though, did not want to paint himself as the victim.
"You know, I'm not as concerned about me," he said. "What's happened to me has been great. I got five great kids. Seventeen great grandchildren. I've had a wonderful experience here at Penn State. I don't want to walk away from this thing bitter. I want to be helpful."
The notion that Paterno was nearing the end of his remarkable life served to bond not only those who never lost faith in him, but to sway fence-sitters who had come to understand that his like would not be seen again. Not at Penn State, not anywhere. When his family - wife, Sue, five children, 17 grandchildren - gathered around him for the final farewell, it was as if all those thousands of admirers were somehow there, too.
The hospital announcement of Paterno's passing was unadorned with fancy rhetoric.
"On Jan. 22, 2012, at 9:25 a.m., Joseph V. Paterno died of metastatic small-cell carcinoma of the lung at Mount Nittany Medical Center, State College, Pa.," the statement read. "Joe was surrounded by his family at the time of his passing, and they request privacy at this difficult time."
Funeral arrangements are expected to be announced today, a school spokesman said.
Another statement, released by the family, was only somewhat more expansive.
"He died as he lived," it read in part. "He fought hard until the end, stayed positive, thought only of others and constantly reminded everyone of how blessed his life had been. His ambitions were far-reaching, but he never believed he had to leave this Happy Valley to achieve them. He was a man devoted to his family, his university, his players and his community."
Reaction to Paterno's death was immediate. Bill O'Brien, the offensive coordinator of the Super Bowl-bound New England Patriots, issued a statement that praised his Brooklyn-born predecessor as "great man, coach, mentor and, in many cases, a father figure." PSU president Rodney Erickson promised his "remarkable life and legacy" would be honored soon with some sort of official tribute, and even Sandusky weighed in with a statement that praised his former boss as having maintained "a high standard in a very difficult profession. Joe preached toughness, hard work and clean competition. More importantly, he had the courage to practice what he preached."
So what will people remember most of Joe Paterno? Will it be his 409-136-3 record? His five undefeated teams? His five National Coach of the Year Awards? His induction into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2007? Or will it be the lingering stench of the Sandusky scandal?
Maybe the person most qualified to summarize the essence of Joe Paterno is, well, Joe Paterno. If he were just another X's and O's guy, or someone primarily interested in the chase for the almighty buck, he probably would have left Penn State in 1972 when the Patriots offered him $1.3 million to become their coach and general manager. Joe, who was making $32,000 at the time, agreed with Sue that his life's mission would be better advanced by remaining on campus.
"I think if it's just a question of winning and losing, football is a silly game," he said a few years ago. "Football, to me, has been a vehicle by which I can have some impact on young people during a very impressionable part of their lives. I take that responsibility very seriously. If we, as coaches, can make a positive impact on kids and win some games, too, so much the better."