Paterno's conflicting legacy

Flowers, candles, and other memorabilia surround the statueof Joe Paterno at Penn State's Beaver Stadium.
Flowers, candles, and other memorabilia surround the statueof Joe Paterno at Penn State's Beaver Stadium. (JASON PLOTKIN / York Daily Record)
Posted: January 29, 2012

Penn State University underwent an exhausting convalescence last week, its people strained through an emotional wringer that created fatigue akin to running a marathon in a weighted vest.

Joe Paterno, perhaps the most important citizen in Penn State history, died without much warning, and was laid to rest against a backdrop of both tribute and scorn. After a garish blue hearse carried his coffin through the tidy streets of campus and town, as his wife, Sue, took Paterno's seat in row one, seat one of the blue school bus that traditionally carried her husband and his team to Beaver Stadium, his children and other dignitaries eulogized him.

And after he was buried, we still really don't know how to feel.

To pay him tribute or to not pay him tribute. That was, is, and always will be the question with Joe Paterno.

In any other time, an ostentatious salute to the Lion king would never have been questioned. This was a great man, a man who meant so much more than the victories he helped forge on a football field. This was a man so dedicated to his school that he gave back millions to that school. He was dedicated to the athletes he recruited for the wins they might get him, but also to their lives after those wins were just numbers in a record book. He was an educated man, and yet remained such a simple man, unspoiled by the commercialization of what college athletics are today.

But there will always be Jerry Sandusky.

Last week, the flags at the state house in Harrisburg were lowered to half-staff in honor of Paterno, a gesture befitting a governor or a senator. Someone had doctored a mural on which Paterno appeared with other Penn State notables, painting a gold halo over JoePa's head.

All those actions did was further inflame the part of the populace still sickened by the Penn State scandal, where innocent children may have been victims of abuse and where Joe Paterno may have been complicit.

Like perhaps many folks who watched or followed the ceremonial tribute to Paterno, I found the selection of Phil Knight as one of the eulogists to be a very curious choice.

Knight, the founder and CEO of Nike, is a University of Oregon guy whose modus operandi has been to adorn his alma mater's sports teams with the fanciest of fancy duds - different uniforms per week, with loud color combinations and faux armor on the sleeves.

You couldn't find any two people more different in commercial philosophy than Phil Knight and Joe Paterno, the purveyor of plain, whose idea of stepping out was to keep the white on Penn State's uniforms as bright as possible amid the drab backdrop of navy blue.

And yet it was Knight, inside a packed Bryce Jordan Center on the Penn State campus, who glorified Paterno and then slammed anybody in his wake he felt responsible for the purge of the former Penn State coach.

"If there is a villain in this tragedy, it lies in that investigation, not in Joe Paterno's response," Knight said. "Who is the real trustee at Penn State University? [Paterno] gave full disclosure to his superiors, information that went up the chains to the head of campus police and the president of the school. The matter was in the hands of a world-class university, and by a president with an outstanding national reputation."

Knight's message was received enthusiastically, as if an orchestra were playing Bach's Mass in B minor to an audience of music lovers.

Of course, we know it's not that elementary.

The day before the memorial, I received a letter from a woman named Linda, who railed against the glorification of Joe Paterno.

"I do not dismiss the fact that the guy did a lot for Penn State and college football," she wrote. "But this week has been ridiculous. He is not a God.

"Yes, he was a part of the university for most of his life and he gave a lot of money to the library, but why don't people see that he did make a bad decision when he chose to ignore the Sandusky issue? He did go and tell someone when he was first notified, but when he sees the same guy return to the campus with kids, he should have stepped up.

"Everyone wanted to blame the board for letting him go, when in fact that was the right decision.

"People don't understand the severity of some situations until it happens to them.

"Then, the governor gives the directive to lower the flags? Come on! He was a man. He made mistakes, serious ones that affected other people. He should not be idolized just because he was a football coach who donated money to a university."

It's a conflict that makes your heart sick. It should have been so much different, so much better, so much clearer.

I got the impression that Penn State, the institution that unceremoniously fired Paterno, so honored him out of much guilt. They removed him from his job and maybe that was the right thing. But nobody expected him to die, and perhaps die of a broken heart.

All week long, Beaver Stadium was lit with Paterno's image blazed on the big scoreboard video screen, high above campus. Thus he was appropriately left watching over a university to which he consistently felt paternal. It was the least they could have done.

The thing about legacies is this: If they are strong enough, they will outlast every bit of destruction in their path. The legacy of Joe Paterno is as hearty as a central Pennsylvania winter. It is stamped all over his university and all over college football.

This was a great man. It may take years for us, all of us, to fully appreciate that. Hopefully, it will be a lot sooner. Until then, the man should rest in peace.


Mike Missanelli hosts a show from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 97.5-FM The Fanatic. Contact him at mikemiss@975thefanatic.com.

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