Sam Donnellon: Name the whole place after Paterno

A memorial to Joe Paterno is displayed at the Nittany Lion sculpture garden at Penn State's Worthington Scranton campus.
A memorial to Joe Paterno is displayed at the Nittany Lion sculpture garden at Penn State's Worthington Scranton campus. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: January 24, 2012

THEY HAVE the blueprint already. Within the words of the Board of Trustees and the president of the school that fired him, within the mixed and tortured emotions of students and alumni who saw in Joe Paterno the human embodiment of all that made their school special - in his own words even - this one is an easy call.

"We grieve for the loss of Joe Paterno, a great man who made us a greater university," read the statement released by Penn State president Rodney Erickson Sunday night. "His dedication to ensuring his players were successful both on the field and in life is legendary and his commitment to education is unmatched in college football. His life, work and generosity will be remembered always."

"They ask me what I'd like written about me when I'm gone," says the plaque behind Paterno's statue. "I hope they write I made Penn State a better place, not just that I was a good football coach."

The school has announced that it intends to honor Paterno, but it risks scraping further at the open wound of emotions surrounding the late coach if that action is seen as too little or superficial by those still angered at the coach's Nov. 9 dismissal in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal.

So what to do? Rename the football stadium after him?

By his own words, that would minimalize him, no?

Name a library after him? They've already done that.

Again, this is easy.

University Park should become Paterno Park.

Because really, that's what it is.

Consider that when he took over as football coach in 1966, Penn State's endowment was really nonexistent. By 2007, largely because of his own fundraising efforts, it was $1.67 billion and now is about $2 billion. Consider that University Park - er, Paterno Park - has almost doubled since he became the football coach, that this land-grant university now includes a law school, and medical school and a top-notch meteorology school and, and, and . . .

And consider amid all this, that modest home he lived in and the relatively little salary he required all these years, and that he walked the ground like one of its educators, which he truly saw himself as, as did many, many others.

Consider the only reason "We are Penn State" makes so much sense to students and alumni is because of this one man.

He did so, so much for this place, gave his life to it really. Does it all get scrubbed away because he did so, so, little when it came to Sandusky?

I'm no JoePa apologist, never attended the school. And, yeah, he should have done more to out this guy and prevent the unconscionable harm Sandusky is accused of in the years that followed. And, yeah, they were right to fire him because he didn't.

I get all that. But do I believe he did not follow through for some self-protective Machiavellian reasons? That he thought even once that kids were still being molested after he reported it to his superiors?

That I don't get. Every bit of the rest of his life tells you he was better than that.

To think Paterno understood that Sandusky was still molesting kids and did nothing is harder to believe than his contention to the Washington Post's Sally Jenkins that he "never heard of, of rape and a man." This was a man, after all, who for years arrogantly supported ex-women's basketball coach Rene Portland and her homophobic policies. He got the girl-girl thing but not the boy-boy thing? That I doubt.

He missed the point on Portland, the same way my dad does. They are products of a different age, a different way of thinking. If you watched Paterno at all over the last decade, and you're real about it, there was often an uneasiness as he spoke, kind of like when my father or uncle breaks into one of those what's-wrong-with-the-world rants in a crowded restaurant.

Really, I thought at times that's how it would end with Joe. He would say something wildly inappropriate or excuse the inexcusable from one of his players, and that would be that. In truth, he went out saying many right things, that he should have done more, that his heart and prayers went out to the victims whose plight he might have prevented and, finally, that we should not feel sorry for him.

So I don't. But I also feel a debt to him for all those years he served as a beacon in college athletics. And I also think that his efforts to build more than just a football school and his desire to be viewed as more than just a football coach should not be expunged in some misguided attempt to cleanse a sin.

He built that school. Gave his life to it. And people who walk in his mighty wake 10, 20 years from now should know it.


Send email to donnels@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to www.philly.com/SamDonnellon.

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