Commentary

Paterno a study in contradiction

Originally Published: January 22, 2012
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

Just 18 months ago, at the annual Big Ten Football Kickoff in Chicago, I half-seriously asked Joe Paterno if he kept a bucket list. He was 83 at the time and his voice was often faint, to the point where you had to lean in close to hear his response.

[+] EnlargeJoe Paterno
Chris Gardner/US PresswireA bucket list? Joe Paterno found the idea funny.

Paterno had no idea what I was talking about. So I told him a bucket list was a list of things you wanted to do before -- and then I caught myself.

Too late.

"Before I what," said Paterno, suddenly engaged, his voice in full, operational Brooklyn mode, "die?"

Everyone at the interview table, including Paterno, got a laugh out of the answer. We laughed because Paterno was probably the last person who needed a bucket list. There wasn't a championship he hadn't won, a trophy he hadn't hoisted or a victory total he wasn't going to surpass. In fact, other coaches put "Meet Paterno" on their bucket lists.

But here's the other thing: We laughed because we couldn't imagine a college football world without Paterno in it. Sure, he was in his early 80s, but he still had that mostly jet-black hair, that JoePa glare and a jones to keep coaching at Penn State until he dropped.

And now he's gone. In October he became the winningest football coach in Division I history. In November he was fired by the Penn State board of trustees. In January he died of complications from lung cancer.

Paterno is survived by his wife, Sue; by his five children; by his 17 grandchildren; by dozens of assistant coaches; by hundreds of victories; by thousands of Nittany Lions players; and by tens of thousands of admirers and loyalists. He was beloved. He was respected. And don't kid yourself, he was also feared.

There is no simple way to describe his legacy because there is no simple way to describe Paterno. With those cinder-block-thick glasses and that smallish frame, he looked like a guy who memorized the Dewey decimal system for fun. Instead, he presided over a football factory that produced Heisman Trophy winners, All-Americans, NFL draft picks, an impressive number of graduates and, on occasion, criminal arrestees.

He coached. He raised a family. He stiff-armed the NFL and the millions that would have come with it.

He also blustered. He intimidated. He ruled.

Paterno was a contradiction in so many ways. He was loyal to a fault, but also demanded loyalty to a fault. He was a man of the classics, of Virgil's "Aeneid," yet he coached in an age of 140-character thoughts. He was prehistoric, but he also was so out that he was almost in.

Right up until the very end, he was a Greek tragedy, a Shakespearean play. Paterno achieved so much, coached so well, contributed so often. His life was a series of a thousand different, amazing accomplishments -- and a handful, if that, of fatal flaws that fogged his judgment when he needed it most.

He did great good. He did great damage. If those 409 wins, the millions of dollars he donated to the university he loved and his two national championships are part of his obituary, then so is his role in the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal. Like it or not, they are forever connected.

[+] EnlargeTim Curley and Joe Paterno
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarThen-president Graham Spanier and AD Tim Curley presented Paterno with a plaque for his 409th win. Soon after, all three were under fire for their roles in the Sandusky scandal.

His defenders will say he did no wrong, or that his few wrongs are overshadowed by his many rights. Perhaps it's best to say Paterno wasn't as perfect as his supporters insist, or as imperfect as his critics contend.

It's weird how things work out. The last game Paterno's old friend Bear Bryant won was the last game he coached. Bryant's Bama team beat Illinois.

The last game Paterno won was also the last game he coached. He beat Illinois.

Bryant died four weeks after his 323rd victory. Paterno died 12 weeks after his 409th.

Silas Redd will be able to tell his own children one day that he scored the 3-yard touchdown in the snow at Beaver Stadium with 1:08 remaining to give Penn State -- and the old man -- the win. Afterward, then-PSU athletic director Tim Curley presided over the postgame awards ceremony.

"On behalf of the university, President [Graham] Spanier, the team and all of your former letter winners," said Curley, "we want to express our appreciation and congratulations to you on another great accomplishment and a wonderful milestone."

Curley is now on administrative leave and charged with perjury relative to the Sandusky case. Spanier was forced to resign as president. And Paterno, fired over the phone after 46 years as head coach, has passed.

Paterno spent 61 years on the Penn State staff and was part of 704 Nittany Lions games. He married a Penn State graduate. His son coached at Penn State.

His full-time coaching life began in State College. His natural life ended there.

This is a time to honor him. To remember him -- all of him, successes and flaws.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter