The death this morning of former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, at the age of 85, culminates one of the strangest and saddest chapters in college football this season. The man who won more games than any other head coach on ANY level is being remembered more for a scandal, over which he had little control and had even less understanding of it, than his decades long career.
If you imagine how short 90 days actually flies by, it is still hard to fathom how Paterno, in a time-span of less than three months, was idolized for the record-breaking victory, then being in the eye of the hurricane that was Jerry Sandusky, to being fired (in such an ignominous fashion) to the revelation of affliction with lung cancer to literally dying overnight. Sometimes, life AND death take place faster than the speed of light and certainly quicker than the speed of comprehension.
It would probably be proper to state that Paterno stayed too long at the dance; he should have retired a decade ago (about the time he first learned of Sandusky's behavior through McQuerry's disclosure and allegation). I can only play armchair quarterback to ask, in hindsight, what would Paterno have wanted: a clean legacy or the victories record? I don't think the record book, which is still a temporary position until someone else eventually replaces you, is any substitute for retaining your reputation and good name. Paterno will forever be linked to this scandal, even on the day he died.
Here's my hypothesis: Paterno was SO old school, so rigid in his belief system, focusing all of life to football, that when he was informed of the shower incident, involving Sandusky (his trusted right-hand man for 30 years on the job) and a 13-year-old boy, he could NOT process it. Pure and simple. His mind couldn't conceive of such behavior happening, taking place on his facility, and involving a man he trusted for three decades. In a digital age, it simply did not compute.
Paterno did inform his "superiors," despite the unwritten understanding of who lorded over whom, and continued his business of running Nittany Lion football. He didn't follow up because 1) it still didn't register and he had NO idea of the depth of the depraved behavior; and 2) he honestly thought his actions were satisfactory. After all, shouldn't school officials have taken upon themselves to go to the police?
But if you think back, right around 10 years ago, Paterno became less and less involved, on a direct basis, with the football team. His health began to decline, he spent more time coaching in the press box than on the field and most of the game decisions were left to the coordinators. Everything began to crumble - from Penn State's on-field influence to Paterno's physical well-being. About 10 years ago, fans began to hear the various calls for JoePa to step down and allow new, fresh blood into the program for reinvigorate it. However, Paterno would have none of it; perhaps because he saw no reason to exist other than running Penn State football.
In the wake of the nationwide scandal and condemnation, Paterno was fired on Nov. 5, and a few days later (seemingly just a few hours later), his lung cancer condition was diagnosed, followed by reports of a broken hip, identical to the one suffered a few years before.
When Paterno gave his only on-camera interview to Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post, the first half was conducted with Paterno sitting in a chair (although he wore a wig to cover the effects of cancer treatment). The second half, not shown on camera, was held while Paterno was lying in bed. The end was closer than people knew.
On Saturday night, the grim news leaked from different sources that family was gathering to say goodbye; his son bravely denied it through various messages, but ... you knew it was true. Which is why his eventual death was no shock; it was more a feeling of sadness for what had transpired in less than 90 days.
Paterno SHOULD be remembered for his accomplishments and achievements as a football coach - NOT for what others criminally did through an association with Penn State football. But that's not the times in which we live; we have forgotten that people are innocent until proven guilty and Joe Paterno was guilty of nothing other than growing old and failing to understand the depths by which some people will fall in the course of human behavior.
He was the last of his generation of coaches and perhaps the last of an era where one man held such an unflinching grip over a single program and a single university. All condolences to the State College community and the Penn State family.