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Sports Then and Now

Joe Paterno Still Has An Opportunity To Leave a Powerful Legacy

Posted on November 10, 2011 by Dean Hybl

Joe Paterno's tenure as head football coach at Penn State is over after 46 years.

The firing of Joe Paterno as head football coach at Penn State is a sad and in some ways shocking twist to a story that has rocked the college football world over the last week and that will perhaps serve as the tipping point for regaining perspective on where college athletics fit within the overall landscape.

Ironically, Paterno is the one coach that many thought already understood the role of college athletics.

Paterno became a legendary figure at Penn State and across college football not just because he was a successful coach on the field, but because it was generally perceived that he and his program “did things the right way.”

From the beginning of his tenure in 1966, Paterno emphasized having his players integrated as part of the educational institution. His players had to not only perform on the field, but also in the classroom. The result is a graduation rate of 78% of football players that ranks well above the national average.

For much of his tenure, it was generally felt that Paterno wasn’t coaching to create a legacy, but instead to provide young men with the tools to be successful well after their football careers were over.

He clearly recognized that a successful college had much more than just a good football team. Paterno and his wife donated millions of dollars to programs around the campus and were instrumental in raising the money for a library extension, which was named in their honor.

However, at some point things started to turn. Maybe it was around the time when Paterno and then-Florida State coach Bobby Bowden started to compete for the honor of having the most wins in Division I-A college football. Maybe it was when Penn State suffered back-to-back losing seasons for the first time ever during his tenure during the 2000 and 2001 campaigns and whispers started as to whether the game had passed him by.

Though the graduation rate of the players never wavered, suddenly Penn State players started piling up as many off the field incidents as they were scoring points on the field. A 2008 investigation revealed 46 Penn State players faced a total of 163 criminal charges.

Was Penn State Right to Fire Joe Paterno and Not Let Him Finish the Season?

  • Yes (59%, 26 Votes)
  • No (41%, 18 Votes)

Total Voters: 44

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Interestingly, at the same time Penn State players were proving not to be angels around town, they were also regaining relevance and success on the field.

Joe Paterno will not get a final victory ride like the one he received for winning his 324th game in 2001.

Calls for Paterno’s retirement quieted down between 2005 and 2009 when the Nittany Lions won 11 games in a season three times and at least nine games for five straight years.

After a 7-6 campaign in 2010, the rumblings for the 84-year-old Paterno to retire started again. But he remained steadfast in his determination to remain as football coach.

On the field, the 2011 season was a definitive statement by Paterno that he still could win football games. The Nittany Lions are currently 8-1 and are the only team without a loss in Big Ten play.

However, it turns out that things were unraveling behind the scenes and ultimately even Joe Paterno couldn’t overcome this scandal.

It will ultimately take a court of law to determine the guilt or innocence of longtime Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. However, in the powerful court of public opinion, Paterno and everyone associated with Penn State athletics that were aware as far back as 2002 that something was happening are guilty of a horrible lapse in judgment.

It is hard for any of us to say for sure what we would do if we suddenly found out that someone we worked with for 30 years and that had played a vital part in providing us with success and riches was doing something that wasn’t just criminally wrong, but also immoral and physically and psychologically damaging to innocent young people.

I think we all like to believe that we would be immediate and aggressive in our actions. That we would go right to authorities and insist that they handle the situation without delay. Then we would distance ourselves and our business from that person in whatever manner possible.

But is that really what we would do?

We will likely never completely understand why Joe Paterno didn’t follow-up with authorities after initially passing the information along to his athletic director or why he didn’t immediately bar Sandusky from all access to college football facilities (reports say he was in the weight room working out last week).

Because we have spent decades putting Paterno on a pedestal, I think we are all disappointed and surprised that he wasn’t swift and powerful in his handling of this situation. We’ve heard over the last week of how he ruled Penn State football with an iron fist and had control over everything, so why wasn’t he immediately outraged in the same manner the rest of the country has been this week?

Was he passive out of loyalty to Sandusky? Was it because he didn’t really understand the accusation and didn’t think it was that serious? Was he worried about how Sandusky’s actions would impact his legacy and Penn State football?

These are questions that will certainly be asked, but may never be fully answered.

Most fans wish that Paterno would have shown the same fire and aggression in dealing with Jerry Sandusky that he did as football coach.

What we do know is that his inaction has resulted in swift action from the university administration and the unceremonious end to Paterno’s 62 years as a member of the Penn State coaching staff, including the last 46 as head coach.

He will not get a final home game to savor the moment and say goodbye to the game and school to whom he has given so much.

In some respect, given his inaction when there was certainly opportunity for him to have aggressively acted in a manner that would have changed the story and perhaps reduced the number of victims, it is absolutely the right decision. I think in our practical minds we all understand and agree with what the administration has done.

However, for anyone who has spent years watching and respecting Paterno, there is also a sadness that he won’t have that one final moment and last chance for fans and players alike to recognize all the good things that he has done for Penn State University, for his players and for his sport.

This is not the ending to his storied career that anyone wanted for Paterno, but it does not have to be the final chapter.

Our country is all about people picking themselves up after making a mistake and then moving forward to become part of the solution.

Can you imagine anything more powerful than a college football coaching legend suddenly becoming a major advocate against sexual abuse of children?

Paterno was known as a teacher of men and he now could become a teacher for all of us that sexual abuse is a horrible crime and that we must act aggressively right away to ensure it is stopped in its tracks.

Dedicating the remainder of his years to such a cause may not provide Paterno with the adulation of thousands of screaming fans, but it would certainly help him leave this world a better place, which I believe is a far more powerful legacy than anything he (or anyone else) ever accomplished on the football field.

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