There are ways in which this part of the Paterno legend falls short; his actions don’t square with his vision. He was a demanding, often distant boss. He could be a harsh mentor, and not every player who needed his guidance got it (and often those who were better at football received a larger proportion of it.) But being a head coach – especially in an era of 100,000 crowds and billion dollar television contracts – is daunting. As the job morphed, in part because of the way Paterno helped grow the game, he couldn’t hope to keep up with all of his duties. As his legend grew, he couldn’t reach every single person who wanted a piece of him, couldn’t appease every booster, every high school coach with a hot-shot recruit, every reporter hoping to explain his mystique.
If, as his family says he did, Paterno lived his final days full of the hope and vigor that marked his life and void of any bitterness or overwhelming regret, I’d like to believe he did so because he hoped that even in falling – or particularly in falling – he had again made us better.
Not long after news of the Sandusky scandal broke, Paterno said that he wished he had done more. He called the tragedy one of the great sorrows of his life. He talked of hindsight.
In an interview with the Washington Post he tried to explain himself by saying, mainly, that he had tried to do the right thing.
Then he was gone.
The cleanup won’t be easy. Factions saying the Penn State board of trustees acted unfairly will war with those that believe Paterno needed to go. Former players will continue to express angst and Paterno’s detractors will continue to say I told you so. Those who've stayed neutral will try to reconcile the good Paterno did with the evil that some say he overlooked.
For those to whom Paterno’s words rang most clearly – for those who thought of him as the emblem representing what they should strive to be – this will last:
Joe Paterno was a man who said he wanted to make things better, and he almost always did.
He always tried, and sometimes failed.