One of the reasons Joe Paterno resisted retirement for so long was because he didn't want to end up like Bear Bryant, who died just a few weeks after hanging up his houndstooth hat at Alabama.
But a fate that's possibly worse than death has accompanied the end of Paterno's career. The coaching legend was fired by the Penn State board of trustees on Wednesday night and has spent the days since holed up in his house near campus. While still revered by many Nittany Lions fans, Paterno is being viewed nationally as negligent and perhaps even complicit in the child-sex abuse allegations against Jerry Sandusky. Not only did the winningest coach in major college football history fail to go out on his own terms, he will likely be dealing with civil lawsuits and other legal actions for years to come, with the possibility that legal fees alone could erode his life savings.
The legacy of Paterno was never supposed to be this way. For decades, he was hailed as Saint Joe by some for his ability to win the right way. His statue outside Beaver Stadium describes him as "a humanitarian" in addition to a football coach. Instead, Paterno's name will forever be synonymous not just with the 409 wins, but also for the immense personal damage that allegedly occurred on his watch.
It's inarguable that JoePa has done a lot of good for a lot of people in his life. Now he must undertake his greatest challenge. He cannot let this be the final chapter of his story.
When Paterno emerges from his cocoon, he has only one choice for going forward. He should spend the rest of his time working for victims of child abuse.
Penn State announced that it had raised more than $20,000 toward child-abuse prevention at Saturday's game against Nebraska. A small group of alumni who started a web site called ProudtobeaPennStater.com late last week says it has received more than $340,000 in donations for RAINN as of Monday morning.
Those are worthy and impressive efforts. But imagine how much more money could be raised if Paterno spearheaded the cause. Despite the scandal, he remains extremely popular among the Nittany Lions fan base, which was made obvious by the signs of support and students chanting his name at Saturday's game. Paterno could travel around the state of Pennsylvania and across the country leading fundraisers and charity events, telling his story and letting everyone know how truly sorry he is.
He could star in public-service announcements and lead a movement to locate all the victims and give them whatever help they need. Paterno knows how to rally teams together, and he has led fundraising campaigns before. He helped collect more than $13 million for a library expansion on campus in 1997 that was eventually named in his honor.
The 84-year-old can't use the excuse that he doesn't have the energy for such efforts, either. That's the same point he vehemently denied while insisting on remaining head coach, even after it became evident to most that he wasn't pulling all the strings (one of the telling details from last week was when Paterno didn't leave his house to go to the football complex until after noon, then left for a break a couple hours later and was home by 6 p.m. On Tuesday, during a huge game week).
Nothing Paterno can do now will erase the horror of what happened to Sandusky's alleged victims. The stain on Paterno's legacy will be permanent. But he can spend the rest of his life atoning and doing whatever he can to ease the pain of those victims -- and working to make sure a similar situation never happens again. That's a much more fitting final act.
Paterno often said he didn't want to retire because he didn't play golf, fish or hunt. He liked to say he had no other hobbies. Well, now he's got something to do.