Commentary

Joe Paterno's legacy outweighs scandal

Originally Published: January 22, 2012
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

In the span of 12 weeks, Joe Paterno transformed from beloved Penn State icon to Rorschach test on child abuse to ailing victim. His fate, the one that awaits us all, arrived with charitable swiftness. As tough as Paterno could be, at 85 years of age he proved no match for cancer.

[+] EnlargeJoe Paterno
John McDonnell/The Washington PostJoe Paterno spent his final days battling cancer and critics.

Paul (Bear) Bryant, the man whose career victory record Paterno surpassed in 2001, famously died only four weeks after he coached his 323rd college football victory. Paterno lasted eight weeks longer after he won No. 409. Unlike Bryant, the former Alabama coach whose life and legend are venerated to this day, Paterno lived out his final days as the subject of controversy.

A man's death demands that we look to his life -- not just the last 12 weeks, swollen and inflamed by the heat of the vengeful -- but 62 years of coaching young men at one university. A legacy covers more than 12 weeks.

There comes a time in the life cycle of every momentous news story when the coverage of it stops being about the subject. It happens after the news stops registering on the Richter scale. The basics are established. The tectonic plates stop shifting. If the facts change at all, they are subtle aftershocks, not of the degree that topple buildings, or political leaders, or iconic football coaches.

Little more than a week ago, Paterno provided Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post his last public word on his role in the failure to prevent Jerry Sandusky, his former assistant coach, from allegedly molesting young boys. Paterno's critics read his response as nothing more than the defense of an indefensible lapse in judgment, the inadequate rebuttal of a man who could have and should have done more.

The crimes at stake here are two clicks past heinous. Penn State, not to mention the entire State College community, mishandled the Sandusky case in a way that will haunt town and gown for many, many years. People are angry. They want a pound of flesh.

And that anger has fueled the pumps that continue to spew vitriol at Paterno, even as the justice system in Pennsylvania continues to exonerate him.

Even as he continued to say he wished that he had done more.

Even as Paterno sat in a wheelchair, recovering from a broken pelvis, his body wracked by the chemo and radiation to which he subjected himself. Cancer took its own pound of flesh anyway.

[+] EnlargeJoe Paterno
Malcolm Emmons/US PresswireJoe Paterno helped build Penn State into one of the most recognizable universities in the country.

The Sandusky case has rubbed raw all of us who have children, or once were children. Paterno, the most powerful man on campus, is one more person who looked and did not see, who listened and failed to hear. He told the Post this month what he said in November. He wished he had done more. It is ineffably sad.

But it should not cancel all that came before it. It should zero out neither Paterno's six decades of achievement at Penn State nor his lifetime of leadership and beneficence at the university.

When a leader is fallen and vulnerable, the enemies and victims who have waited for him to weaken will seize the moment, safe in the knowledge that at last they may air their grievances without fear of reprisal. In the past 12 weeks, one story has emerged. A former Penn State official told The Wall Street Journal that Paterno intervened to keep the campus judicial system from judging his players. It is not a flattering story.

No one else has come forward. No other evidence has surfaced that would suggest Paterno the man cannot match Paterno the legend. That evidence may arise.

Yet a legion of men, who know him much better than any of his critics, continues to defend him. Some are gray of hair and round of stomach, others are younger than Paterno's five children. All of them wore blue and white. They arose to stand by his side when Paterno no longer could stand up for himself. Paterno was the coach who molded them. He instilled a beacon of light to guide them in their lives. He was the man who made them men.

The Sandusky scandal has revealed that Joe Paterno missed in real time what may be seen so plainly in hindsight. The scandal has cast a shadow over a brilliant coaching life. But even the darkest of eclipses are temporary. To say that this scandal should obscure all that came before it ignores the meaning of legacy.

The 409 victories, while record-setting, are not the full measure of the man. The young men he left behind, the campus to which he devoted his life, a campus whose leaders shoved him aside in the panicky, feverish days after the scandal broke, also give testimony to the life of Joseph Vincent Paterno.

The whole of his life renders the seismology of modern-day journalism moot. The facts of a 62-year coaching career were shaken. They did not topple over.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com