Joe Paterno's legacy getting lost in Bill O'Brien's success at Penn State

As if hiding from the public, Joe Paterno's statue wore a protective cover while workers removed it from the Penn State campus last summer.
As if hiding from the public, Joe Paterno's statue wore a protective cover while workers removed it from the Penn State campus last summer. (CHRISTOPHER WEDDLE / Centre Daily Times)
Posted: January 17, 2013

Funny how nobody talks much anymore about Joe Paterno's statue.

Much like that 900-pound likeness the university removed last summer from outside Beaver Stadium, the late Penn State coach's legacy once seemed destined to endure forever. Now, almost a year after Paterno's death, it is melting away rapidly, like the last vestiges of a snowfall in spring.

The tumult provoked by the Jerry Sandusky scandal, the red-hot debate over Paterno's response, and the fears about Penn State football's future all have eased somewhat, even if the torment of Sandusky's child victims has not.

Sandusky is in prison. Paterno is dead. His statue is in storage at an undisclosed location. And, remarkably, the university's signature program appears to have regained its footing.

Paterno's successor, Bill O'Brien, has overseen a speedier transition than anyone could have imagined back when the university's worst nightmare was unfolding hourly on cable news.

In ways both trivial (adding names to the famously unadorned jerseys) and substantive (installing a pro-style passing attack), O'Brien in one season successfully maneuvered the Nittany Lions away from the Sandusky shoals and into the open seas.

Since Paterno's legacy forever will be scarred by the troubling scandal, it's often difficult to discuss it rationally. Still, it's safe to say there's much about O'Brien his bespectacled predecessor would have admired.

He's a fellow Brown alumnus. He's got brains, guts, and a fierce work ethic. Most significant, he has won, transforming the despairing remnants of a bad team into a formidable, prideful unit.

On the other hand, it's just as logical to assume that some of O'Brien's actions have JoePa spinning in his grave, located on an inconspicuous hillside outside Spring Creek Presbyterian Church.

Boosters appear to be accumulating power at a place where they always had been harnessed by Paterno's influence. Junior-college transfers are showing up at a place where they rarely were considered. And an NFL-inspired passing scheme is now dominant at a place where the offense typically was as bland as the uniforms.

"Jeez," one can almost hear Paterno whining, "what the heck is this kid from Boston doing?"

If reports are true - and O'Brien on Jan. 7 denied getting such a gift - the Nittany Lions coach turned away from NFL offers only because wealthy PSU alumnus Terry Pegula offered to pony up the $1.3 million that would hike his salary to the level of college football's big boys.

While Paterno raised a ton of money for the school, he protected Penn State athletics from the insidious influence of boosters. Pegula, who donated $102 million in 2010 to fund a PSU hockey program, has turned into an ATM for Nittany Lions athletics. Whatever influence he exerts - and with more than $100 million in leverage it's safe to assume that could be considerable - has yet to be fully explored.

Paterno's fame exploded in 1973 when, for what he portrayed as altruistic reasons, he turned down millions from the NFL's New England Patriots to stay in Happy Valley.

The notion that an academic institution, one whose reputation he almost singlehandedly built, would now use big money to keep a coach tempted by the NFL - with booster money, no less - almost certainly would have appalled him.

"We are happy to accept their money," Paterno once said of boosters, "but we don't want their two cents' worth."

Then there are the junior-college transfers. O'Brien has been recruiting them actively, and landed a significant commitment from a Juco quarterback, Tyler Ferguson of the College of the Sequoias in California.

Paterno realized that one of the easiest ways to corrupt his Grand Experiment was by recruiting quick-fix, junior-college players, most of whom had academic records that wouldn't have warranted a second look from his Penn State.

You could count the Juco transfers Paterno actively sought and landed in 46 seasons on the fingers of one hand.

"I'm not saying that it's not for somebody else to recruit them," Paterno said in 2007. "That's their business. I've just felt that [it was unfair to] bring kids in as freshmen and sophomores, and then all of a sudden you bring somebody in and put them ahead of them. That's never lit me up."

Having been raised several football generations before O'Brien, Paterno, with very few exceptions, was a run-first coach. He would have lived with the complex, pro-style passing game his successor utilizes because it has worked. But in his idealistic heart, you know he'd be jones-ing for a tailback who carries the ball 35 times a game.

All this in O'Brien's first season. At that pace, how long can the Paterno legacy survive?

There are some, among his former players and newly elected trustees, who will tilt at windmills, battling to preserve whatever they can from Paterno's glory years.

They'd better hurry. The current administration, understandably, appears eager to maintain and build upon this new era while, as quietly as possible, burying the old.

In just a few years, the memories and the records Paterno created could be stowed away with the old coach's statue.

And, swayed by new victories and new horizons, Penn Staters soon might stop looking for them.

Contact Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or Follow on Twitter @philafitz. Read his blog, "Giving 'Em Fitz," at

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