By the time anyone gets around to asking another person how he or she would like to be remembered, the answer is, almost assuredly, destined to be a footnote. The query makes sense only if that man or woman’s legacy is already shrouded in nuance and of some particular public interest. And it’s not like the answer will tilt the scales; not in the cacophony of chatter that crowds the internet.
Yet when they erected a statue of Joe Paterno outside of Beaver Stadium on Nov. 2, 2001, they included the following quote:
"They ask me what I'd like written about me when I'm gone. I hope they write I made Penn State a better place, not just that I was a good football coach."
It struck me as a strange thing to include. I was a sophomore in college then, just beginning to understand the skepticism needed for journalism. But I still had few doubts about one thing: if anybody existed who didn’t really need to have his own say – especially so largely and permanently displayed – it was Joe Paterno. His detractors were few, their complaints petty.
Ten years, stunning revelations and Paterno’s all-too-sudden death – the sort of death those close to him say he always feared if he left the sideline – leave those words hanging there as thousands upon thousands of people debate his legacy.
Paterno’s body is, as I write on Wednesday afternoon, being driven past thousands of people who have lined the streets of State College. Try to imagine you are there, and that you are a Penn State student, or an alum, or just someone who for so many years spent Saturdays in the fall watching Joe Paterno coach his football team and now you are up on your toes trying to see the man – known as much for his pensive, solitary walks through town as his stirring gallops out of the tunnel before a game, his players in their plain blue and white jerseys eventually overtaking him, engulfing him, seemingly lifting him to the sideline – pass by one more time. And now you are part of the team. You, too, can carry JoePa (the hashtag on Twitter being used by those standing vigil was #GuideJoeHome). Do you feel the dissonance – do you think of the victims of Jerry Sandusky’s alleged crimes – or is it just, for all you can tell, a simpler time?
And if it is, how long will it last?
A majority of those close to the situation in State College have opted to focus on all the good Joe Paterno did for what was – you’ll read repeatedly – a sleepy farm town and its cow college when he arrived. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Frank Fitzpartrick – who wrote a book on Paterno and has been far from an apologist – gives Paterno much of the credit for Penn State being the nationally renowned university that it is. Rick Reilly’s ode to Paterno asks that we remember all the good, even if his final public days were so full of sorrow.
Whether you find Paterno’s legacy ruined or merely sullied or diluted or complex or gleaming and whole depends on where you stand. It’s that way with everyone, especially those who spend the majority of their lives as public figures. Show me the man with an uncomplicated legacy, and I’ll show you a hermit.
We’re unlikely to ever come to any clear understanding of whether Joe Paterno merely made a mistake by not reporting what he knew about Jerry Sandusky to the police – as he has maintained – because he didn’t quite grasp the seriousness of the story he heard from assistant Mike McQueary, or if his momentary lack in judgment was borne of a desire to mitigate that which might hurt his program. It’s hard for many to believe Paterno partook in something truly nefarious. But it’d be naïve to think that a culture he built – one equally as demanding as insular – didn’t obscure the way those inside of it thought and acted. (For a particularly interesting read on this, read Kate Fagan.)
There's something eerie and tidy about Paterno’s death coming now, before the new coach, Bill O’Brien, has even arrived or the court cases and investigations into Jerry Sandusky, accused of sexually assaulting 10 boys over a 15-year period, have moved forward. His testimony to the grand jury is now inadmissible; he’ll essentially be a bit player in the legal proceedings. He’ll rest in peace.
A majority of the people lining the streets Wednesday were students. In news reports they’ve called him a grandfather-like figure. They’ve repeated a popular refrain – We Are because You Were.
It is true that Paterno has given back more than other football coaches, and that he pushed for academic reforms when others worked to lower them. But plenty of state schools blossomed during the latter half of last century, as it became more common for students to attend college. Paterno, by providing the happiest diversion to the students and alumni of Pennsylvania’s state university, gained one of the loudest voices and heaviest hands. He said the right things and nudged Penn State the right way. He made us feel unique with his grand ideas and by sharing the smallest details of his life: he was a humble kid, up from Brooklyn, who became an outsider at Brown and then a football coach who saved up to buy a house where he could raise his family. He didn’t need much more. What he looked for in his players was smarts and fortitude, and he found it in the children of steel workers and coal miners on both sides of the state.
Paterno tirelessly spread his message, and eventually his ethos became that of Pennsylvania itself. On our better days, we hope to try to do the right thing and to help make it better for each other. We’ll read a book and not flaunt it, and we’ll dig a ditch and not ask for thanks. When we succeed we act like we’ve been there. When we fail we just keep trying.
Paterno became the emblem for that.
Oddly enough, the one thing that might not have been remarked upon enough over the last several days is just how good Paterno was as a football coach. He dedicated an unfathomable number of hours to the game. His work in the last few years may have been most astonishing of all: in his late 70’s and early 80’s and after enduring a stretch where the team had four losing seasons in five and repeatedly caused trouble off the field, he fashioned a run in which Penn State was once again consistently among the top 25 teams in the country. That he could recreate the program, find a way to recruit and then coach kids almost seven decades his junior (recruiting and coaching are, in many ways, opposite tasks) and then lead them to wins over younger coaches with more energy and the full benefit of modern technology should stand as the final testament to Paterno’s genius. He understood the game of football on a basic, lasting level, just as he understood the young men he coached whether they grew up in a 1960’s coal town or a leafy 1990’s suburb.
As it became clear over the past few years, that Paterno wouldn’t leave himself any sort of actual retirement, I felt robbed by the fact that there’d never be a time for him to share his thoughts on football and coaching. I’d hoped that Joe Posnanski, in State College to write yet another Paterno book, might finally be the one to fully unspool the man behind Coach JoePa. I looked forward to articles about Paterno taking fundraising trips and finally devoting himself totally and only to being Joe Paterno. I wanted to hear his stories. I hoped to read, in his own words, his reflections on a long career. I wanted to think of him sitting somewhere, sipping bourbon and dreaming only of football games that got away and not the long season ahead.
His devotion to the team, though, was too complete. Paterno has long admired Aeneas, the hero of Virgil’s Aeneid whose main characteristic was his selfless service for others. Paterno preached this sort of life; at commencement ceremonies he urged students not to be great, but to become part of something great.
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.
What Paterno did was use his status to help Penn State. Few argue that he was fully devoted to the university as a whole. His life work, though, was football. He saw something important in the game and, faced with a direct choice between becoming a lawyer and coaching a sport, he chose the latter. And then he persisted, with unparalleled urgency, for more than half a century. He believed strongly in the lessons the game could teach and in the dual missions of a college and its football team; we shouldn’t forget that. Yes, by the end Paterno’s teams had fallen to vices that his younger self would have admonished: Penn State pushed to get students through despite shaky grades, then shuffled them into less rigorous academic programs. They accepted more players who saw themselves as potential pros instead of scholar-athletes. But that happens everywhere in college football, and you have to believe that Paterno felt that he could salvage any young man. He’d done it hundreds of times before.
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.