Joe Paterno was a man on a mission. Anyone who watched the Penn State football coach stride across campus or march through the woods near his home could tell he tackled a Sunday stroll with the same energy and intensity as a bowl game.
Joe Paterno was a man on a mission.
Anyone who watched the Penn State football coach stride across campus or march through the woods near his home could tell he tackled a Sunday stroll with the same energy and intensity as a bowl game.
But no longer. It all ended in November, when Paterno was fired in the wake of a sexual abuse scandal involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.
Any flickering hope of redemption slipped away Sunday, when Paterno, 85, died of lung cancer. He leaves a complicated legacy.
Paterno feared he might outlast his welcome at Penn State. Yet he clung tenaciously to his job. He openly mused that he didn’t know what else he could do. And he beat back efforts to push him out the door.
He professed to build character — a “molder of men,” as the Penn State fight song goes. Yet he fell short, in at least one tragic case, when it came time to measure up himself.
Whatever his faults, it’s important to remember that Paterno built something extraordinary at Penn State. And he did it nearly from scratch. When he took the top job in 1966, the road to No. 1 stretched a lot farther from Penn State than from Columbus, Tuscaloosa or South Bend.
All he did from then on was win 409 games and two national titles. He called it the “grand experiment” — the audacious idea that he could build a national football power in the middle of nowhere without sacrificing academic or ethical standards.
Fans and the media loved it. Here was a classics-quoting Ivy League grad with the face of an accountant, a thick Brooklyn accent and a sharp, self-deprecating wit. What’s not to love?
He stalked the sideline in thick black-rimmed glasses, a white shirt and tie, white socks peeking out of pants a tad too short above clunky black shoes. The only thing missing was a pocket protector.
And the Nittany Lions mirrored the man. No flash, no dash. Blue-collar teams with white-collar dreams. But as in any experiment, it was difficult to control the variables.
As the victories mounted, the stadium doubled in size. Recruiting went viral. Demands from fans, alumni and media swelled beyond all proportions. But Paterno resisted the rising tide, even as he rode its crest.
He fought the trend to play true freshmen. When they did play, he hid them from the press. He restricted access to practice, players and coaches. He grew stingy with interviews. He belittled anyone who questioned his decisions. When players ran afoul of the law — and more of them did over the years — he refused to rush to judgment.
Perhaps Paterno was too paternal, too protective of his players and program. His motives were noble, but ultimately lethal. For as much as anything, it was this secretive, isolated and overly protective environment that allowed the Sandusky scandal to fester. Paterno and Penn State became prisoners of their own pretensions.
In the days ahead, former players will recount how Paterno shaped their lives. University officials will tell how he poured millions of his personal wealth into academic endeavors.
These are the tangible results of the grand experiment. These are the paving stones that prescribe the path to the future at Penn State. We should not forget the man who put them in place. He was a man on a mission.