Former Penn State Coach Joe Paterno passed away this morning at the age of 85. Surrounded by family and friends, Paterno succumbed to complications from lung cancer at Mount Nittany Medical Center. Paterno is the winningest Division I coach in college football history, having surpassed legendary Grambling coach Eddie Robinson’s record of 408 wins with a victory over Illinois this season. The Hall of Fame coach had five undefeated seasons, won two national titles, and won an unprecedented five AFCA Coach of the Year awards during his illustrious career. Paterno’s players had success on the field, as over 350 of his players went on to play in the NFL, including 78 first team All-Americans and 32 first round draft picks. But his impact on his players and the Penn State program was just as significant off the field; the graduation rate for Penn State football players was annually among the highest in the nation, and Paterno coached 16 National Football Foundation Scholar-Athletes, 37 first-team Capital One/CoSIDA All-Americans® (47 overall) and 18 NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship winners. His contributions to the university went far beyond producing good men and good football players; Paterno, and his wife Sue, donated over $4 million dollars to the university, helping fund several building projects and an interfaith spiritual center. They were actively involved with the Special Olympics in Pennsylvania and were inducted into the Special Olympics Pennsylvania Hall of Fame in 2008. The man will be remembered fondly by anyone associated with the Penn State community, and all the lives he touched, as well as anyone who believes that college sports should be about more than success on the playing field at any cost.
Disgraced former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno passed away this morning at the age of 85. Paterno’s health had worsened over the last few months after he was terminated by Penn State for his role in the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Sandusky, the longtime former defensive coordinator under Paterno, is facing over 40 counts of sex crimes against young boys after being indicted in November. The indictment announcement came just 11 days after Paterno broke the record for Division I wins in college football. Sandusky gained access to many of his alleged victims through the charity Second Mile, which he founded to help troubled youth. Sandusky was often allowed to bring the children on trips when he traveled with Paterno’s football team, even after his retirement in 1999. That retirement came on the heels of an inquiry into Sandusky’s inappropriate behavior with a minor that resulted in an investigation. However, Sandusky was still permitted full access to Penn State facilities with the Second Mile children as his guests. in 2002, coaching assistant Mike McQueary saw Sandusky having inappropriate sexual contact with a young boy in the shower and reported to Paterno. Paterno, in turn, reported the matter to his superiors, athletic director Tim Curley and university president Graham Spanier. Despite repeated reports of Sandusky’s behavior with minors, not one person in the Penn State administration acted upon the information further, including Paterno, and Sandusky was still allowed around the team, with the Second Mile children. When the scandal broke, everyone from Curley to Spanier to Paterno was dismissed from the university for their inaction. Though not charged with crime, Paterno himself admitted, that in retrospect, he wished he had done more and taken a more active role in the affair to potentially prevent more abuse.
The two preceding paragraphs are both completely factually accurate. Upon learning the news of the passing of Joe Paterno today, most people remembered the former Penn State coach as being associated with the wonderful impact he had on the university described in the first paragraph, or the scandalous end to his career described in the second paragraph. But whichever emotion the news provoked, the reaction was passionate and polarizing. As it became obvious that Paterno was near death, even simple news releases on the matter sparked contentious debates about the man full of passion and vitriol. RIP messages were met with empathetic condolences or biting sarcasm. Even in death, the mere mention of Paterno’s name seems destined to forever divide the public opinion on him into two distinct camps.
But life is rarely, if ever, so black and white. There is good and bad in all of us, from the worst sexual predator to the most pious of holy men. Making mistakes is what makes us human beings. Over my 32 years, I’ve been guilty of making the wrong decision so many times that it often makes my head spin. Sometimes I chose the wrong path willfully, with full knowledge that my actions were wrong. Other times, I did what I thought was right, and only learned later that I had chosen poorly. Many times I paid severe consequences for my actions, while other times I was bailed out by my family and others closest to me. Regardless of my decisions, or past behavior, I’d like to think of myself as a good person. I’m loyal and inconsiderate, selfish and generous, compassionate and harsh.
In the fight to decide how to remember Joe Paterno, we should take a step back and remember, that just because Paterno’s life and reputation were once as pure white as the helmet that is synonymous with him, it’s possible that he was just as much a shade of grey as the rest of us. Joe Paterno, by all accounts, was a good man who cared about his players and his university. He donated his time and money to worthwhile causes. He also made an inexcusable mistake, and rightfully paid the consequences by losing the job he loved. It’s possible to hold him responsible for his mistakes, while praising him for his contributions to society.
I struggled with the title of this post for quite a while: “Passing of a ________?” You can fill in that blank as you see fit: legend, pariah, scapegoat, tragic figure, football coach. But I think I settled on the right choice, because in the end, like the rest of us, Joe Paterno was only human.