Bill Lyon: In Joe Paterno's rise were planted the seeds of his fall

The rolled-up khakis were a trademark of Paterno's.
The rolled-up khakis were a trademark of Paterno's. (DANNY MOLOSHOK / Associated Press)
Posted: January 23, 2012

Once upon a time in the Valley called Happy, there lived a man with monarch powers. And with these powers he bestowed upon the Valley great wealth and fame and philanthropy and enviable reputation, and buildings for football warriors and diligent scholars.

And as the Valley prospered, so did the monarch's authority grow, until whenever someone sought to inquire about the monolithic football program, the monarch would snarl: "It's nobody's business."

But maybe it should have been.

Because then maybe the scandal that stains a proud institution could have been averted, and the debate over the legacy of Joseph Vincent Paterno would not be so combustible.

As it is, what we are left with is a tragic parable straight from the Greek mythology that so captivated him, of the heroic rise and then great fall from grace, brought about by hubris, by an ego left unchecked. If only he had allowed a restraining hand on his shoulder. If only ...

So then, which image will we remember? Those Coke-bottle-thick glasses, the rolled-up khakis and white socks, the prowling of the sideline like a predator, the fire-and-brimstone oratory of those Friday night pep rallies, the moments he emerged from the tunnel onto the floor of the vast arena he built, an army of blue and white thundering behind him, with 100,000 loyalists on their feet and invoking the defiant battle cry: "We Are . . . Penn State . . ."?

Or the unsettling images of these last, sad few years, when he grew frail and his bones began to snap like twigs, when he grew irritable and short-tempered, an old man's grumpiness, and when great boulders began to rain down on him . . . the hasty and clumsy nighttime firing without even the courtesy of warning, imprisoned for the most part in his own home, a flotilla of reporters tracking every step, the falls and the fractures, the chilling diagnosis of cancer - frankly, it all seemed like piling on.

It hit like a flash fire, those allegations of child molestation, and the Valley of Happy, always so isolated and insulated, protected from the real world, was roiled with a scandal that is without precedent, and one that involves just about the last person and the last institution you'd expect. Right? We were all taken aback, weren't we?

On a misty winter night in New Orleans, only hours after he had won his first national championship, Joe Paterno, from his hotel suite, looked down on the mighty Mississippi, the river traffic heavy, and made a confession: "I know I can be a real pain in the ass. Sue says I don't get ulcers, I give them. The best thing any person in authority can do is make sure he has enough people around him to tell him when he's acting like a pompous jackass. I've always tried to surround myself with people who can soften my impact."

All these years later, the irony of what he said then is heavy and haunting. For if he had abided by his own advice, then surely someone on the coaching staff, someone in the inner circle, would have spoken up.

Remember, one of the things Penn State proudly trumpeted was the uncommon loyalty among the assistants. In a nomadic profession, many of them stayed. And stayed. Some left and then came back. And the inescapable result is, if you all share the same foxhole for 10, 15, 20 years, you hear things - even by accident. You just have to.

And if one knows, then all know.

Joe Paterno once told me, smiling: "I'm a benevolent dictator."

Well then, not unlike the toppling of statues of dictators, already the purge has begun, the scramble by those who once couldn't wait to shake the hand that shook the hand of Joe Paterno, to bail out now, to distance themselves from the disgraced icon while his name is scrubbed off trophies and awards.

To the rescue in his memory rides a growing gathering of disgruntled alumni, bent on salvaging a reputation and a legacy. They believe the school to which they owe so much did Paterno a grievous wrong, one that could not be made right while he was alive but which they will try mightily to rectify in his death.

Over the last few years, I have been asked whether Joe Paterno was aware of the harm he was causing by stubbornly refusing to leave. Here is what I believe: He loved Penn State, and the very last thing he wanted to do was cause it great pain.

The danger here is to lose perspective and, in the rush to judgment, pass over the good that he and his wife, Sue, did, all the charities, the library, the scholarships. I've often said that the least important thing Joe Paterno did was coach football.

With his death, I worry now that all the grand accomplishments will be diminished, lessened somehow in value. That would be not only unfair but also an irrevocable shame.

This was a man who devoted a lifetime to an institution, who made it his grand obsession, probably to the point of his ruin.

And here, finally, is the chilling question, the one that you dread giving voice to, the one that sits on your shoulder making you squirm, the one that will haunt you for a long, long time:

Did Penn State kill Joe Paterno?

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