The passing of Penn State coach Joe Paterno left many sports pundits feeling terribly conflicted.
An unthinkably horrible scandal led to his unceremonious firing. The lung cancer ravaged his body and took his life in short order.
Just how should we remember this man?
America’s sporting press struggled with that topic this week:
Sally Jenkins, Washington Post: “For most of his 61 years as a football coach at Penn State, Paterno built a record of thorough decency and good intention. He loved his wife, reared five nice children, taught his students well. He turned down big money for the role of a tenured professor, and strolled every day from his modest home to his unpretentious office. He acquired real power, and generally tried not to abuse it, and if sometimes he did, he covered for it by insisting on paying for his ice cream cones. He set out to prove that staying in one place could be as rewarding as climbing to the next rung. He meant to walk away sooner. He stayed too long. He stayed so long that he became more of an ideal to his followers than a person. Then the horrific happened, and the quaint success story in the peaceful hamlet was destroyed by allegations that Jerry Sandusky, Paterno’s assistant coach for 30 years, was a serial child molester and that Paterno, when told of an incident involving Sandusky and a small boy in the Penn State showers, did his duty but no more, passing the report to his superiors. The only way to give the tragedy the gravity it deserved was to topple the icon who behaved so fallibly.”
Frank Fitzpatrick, Philadelphia Inquirer: “At the moment Joe Paterno's polished wood casket disappeared into the frosty earth at Pine Hall Cemetery on Wednesday, the legend of Happy Valley vanished, too. Like the bespectacled football coach who'd shaped it, the Happy Valley mythology was mortally wounded by the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Born as a metaphor for the Penn State Paterno envisioned, the concept grew into a powerful and enduring symbol in the spectacular growth of the university and its football program. For generations of Penn Staters, the Avalonian image of a remote mountain valley ruled beneficently by Paterno, its incorruptible Arthur, had remarkable appeal - and, until November - validity.”
Dan Wetzel, Yahoo! Sports: “This is a complicated passing. What was once the most consistent and basic of messages – honor, ethics and education – seemingly lived out as close to its ideal as possible was rocked Nov. 5, 2011, when a grand jury indicted Paterno’s former defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, of multiple counts of sexual abuse of children. Many, including Penn State’s Board of Trustees, believed Paterno could have and should have done more to stop Sandusky, especially after allegations of misconduct arose in 2002. Within days Paterno was fired from the program and school to which he’d become synonymous. Now, a little more than two months later, he’s gone for good, a bitter, brutal ending for an American original.”
Gregg Doyel, CBSSports.com: “How will Joe Paterno be remembered? That's up to you, and only you. In the coming days you will be told how to remember the winningest coach in college football history, but beware of those stories. Some of them will be written by people with an agenda, some by people who idolized Paterno for all he did on the football field from 1966-2011, others by people who despised Paterno for all he didn't do when told about Jerry Sandusky in 2002. You will be given instructions on how to remember Joe Paterno by people propping themselves up as experts on the topic, but there is only one expert here, and that expert is you. There is too much here to be condensed into a single point of view.”
Jen Floyd Engel, FoxSports.com: “What I hope the legacy of Paterno will be is that it is possible to be both iconic and disappointing. It is possible to do the right thing a majority of the time and still have a screw-up so major that it clouds everything else. You can be a good man and still flawed. In fact, it is impossible to not be.”
Joe Posnanski, SI.com: “In the moments after Joe Paterno died, it became common for people to write and say that he died of a broken heart. He did not. Joe Paterno died of lung cancer and the complications it caused. He did not die a bitter or broken man. I know this because I spent time with Paterno in his hospital room during the last weeks of his life. I am writing a book about Paterno. We spoke different times about many things -- from his days playing stickball in the streets of Brooklyn, to his time in the Army after World War II, through his playing days and his many coaching days, to, yes, the day a graduate assistant coach told him about seeing Jerry Sandusky in the shower with a young boy -- and what stood out above everything else is that Paterno refused to be bitter or sad about the way it all ended.”
Ivan Maisel, ESPN.com: “Grief takes many forms. The warmth that has enveloped the Paterno family and the anger that has been directed at Old Main, the building that houses the Penn State administration, may be coming from the same place. The university already felt under siege enough that president Rodney Erickson held several town halls earlier this month. Members of the board of trustees met with news media last week to explain the board's decision to fire Paterno. That's two and a half months later. No one engages in damage control unless he has suffered damage.”