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Sports Then and Now

Death of Joe Paterno is Another Sad Twist to Penn State Story

Posted on January 22, 2012 by Dean Hybl

Joe Paterno became an assistant coach at Penn State in 1950 and head coach in 1965.

News of the death of former Penn State head football coach is a reminder of just how quickly things can change.

It was less than three months ago (October 29, 2011) that Paterno led Penn State to a 10-7 victory over the University of Illinois to become the winningest coach in all of Division I football history and I wrote an article with the title “Joe Paterno and the Penn State Nittany Lions Keep on Ticking.”

No one could have imagined that Paterno would be fired from the school less than two weeks later without coaching another game and then less than three months later the iconic 85-year-old football coach would be dead following complications from lung cancer that was diagnosed just days following his dismissal.

Paterno now joins one of the men he passed on the way to the all-time wins record, Paul ‘Bear” Bryant, as an all-time iconic coach who passed away just months after the end of his coaching career.

However, thanks to the scandal that has engulfed Penn State football over the last two and a half months, unlike Bryant, who is still a legendary figure in college football, Paterno’s final legacy will likely be a combination of respect and disappointment.

During his 46 years as head football coach at Penn State, Paterno was regularly put on a pedestal as a one of the few coaches in major college football who understood the role of football within the overall scheme of a university.

However, even before the situation involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, there were multiple stories of Paterno battling with the University to keep players on the field even when they had gone afoul of the law. A 2008 investigation revealed that 46 players faced a total of 163 criminal charges in recent years.

If there is any lessons to learn from the abrupt fall of Paterno it is that even those with pure intentions can lose perspective.

There is no disputing that Paterno had a great influence on the lives of hundreds of college football players and helped turn Penn State not just into a football power, but into a prominent national university.

However, even Paterno was ultimately unable to keep things in perspective.

We will never completely know what he did or didn’t know about the Sandusky situation and I for one am kind of glad that he will never be forced to appear on a witness stand to discuss the situation. But there is little question that a coach who was well known for seizing control of every situation didn’t pay the same diligence to allegations against his former assistant that he did to a football game plan.

Joe Paterno passed Paul "Bear" Bryant in 2001 with his 324th career victory.

It is certainly sad that Paterno’s legacy has been cast in a shadow and he will ultimately be remembered for what he didn’t do as much as for what he did do.

However, the true tragedy is that if the allegations against Sandusky are eventually proven, that no one (Paterno included) took the steps to stop Sandusky despite many chances.

Joe Paterno was an icon in college football and deserves to be remembered in that light. However, hopefully his lasting legacy will be that the next person put in a situation similar to that he faced when originally told of allegations against Sandusky in 2002 will make better choices than those Paterno made.

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