Commentary

Penn State, Joe Paterno forever tied

Originally Published: January 25, 2012
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The university that fired Joe Paterno over the phone in November after 62 seasons of coaching has had to turn around and recast him as an icon upon his death in January. If there is a historical parallel for a relationship this awkward, it escapes me.

[+] EnlargeSamantha Maceil, Joe Paterno
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarJoe Paterno will be linked to Penn State like Bear Bryant is to Alabama.

The Harrisburg (Pa.) Patriot-News reported Tuesday that the Paterno family had discouraged the Penn State board of trustees as a group -- but not as individuals -- from attending the memorial Thursday at the Bryce Jordan Center. When Gov. Tom Corbett, an ex-officio member of the board, took that to mean he should not attend, the family issued a statement specifically inviting Corbett.

The outpouring of emotion in the Penn State community since Paterno died Sunday morning has been a source of comfort to his family. Jay Paterno, the son who coached with his dad for the last 17 years, greeted mourners who came to the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center for the viewing of Paterno's casket Tuesday.

The outpouring of emotion in the letters section of the local newspapers since Sunday has been almost universal anger directed at the university and the board of trustees for their treatment of Paterno.

Grief takes many forms. The warmth that has enveloped the Paterno family and the anger that has been directed at Old Main, the building that houses the Penn State administration, may be coming from the same place.

The university already felt under siege enough that president Rodney Erickson held several town halls earlier this month. Members of the board of trustees met with news media last week to explain the board's decision to fire Paterno. That's two and a half months later. No one engages in damage control unless he has suffered damage.

The stagecraft of campus events for Paterno has been pitch-perfect. Stagecraft may sound callous but the fact is that the death of someone this famous and this beloved calls for gestures grand enough so that thousands may participate. The family and the university had very little time to plan the format. And that's before you consider that the university fired Paterno not three months ago.

Old Main solved the problem by staying out of the way.

"The university's role is being conducted through athletics," Annemarie Mountz, the assistant director of public information at Penn State, said this week.

Guido D'Elia, who is in charge of football communications and branding, has been the point person for planning the events. After this week, he may be qualified for something less taxing, like international diplomacy.

D'Elia served as Paterno's imagemaker and gatekeeper for the last several years. It was his idea to station one current and one former player at Paterno's casket as honorary guards during the public viewing.

It was his idea to light Beaver Stadium each night through Thursday, with a photo of Paterno on the giant scoreboard, which is a laugh to those who knew Paterno as a guy who went through the football office, turning off lights in unoccupied (no matter how briefly) offices.

It was his idea to greet visitors to www.gopsusports.com, the web site for the athletic department, with a charming black-and-white photographic portrait of a smiling Paterno. His arms are folded across his chest, the prominent glasses resting on the even more prominent nose. Below his arms, in the middle of the screen, it reads:

[+] EnlargeJoe Paterno, Beaver Stadium
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarThe lights at Beaver Stadium will stay on through Thursday's memorial service in honor of Paterno.

Joseph Vincent Paterno 1926-2012

Time, the great healer, will soothe the wounds suffered on all sides of this relationship. When the memorial ends Thursday, and the tributes left at the statue of Paterno outside Beaver Stadium stop arriving in gross, and Penn State finds it way out of the grotesquerie of the last three months -- whenever that is -- the university still will be identified with the coach in the big glasses and the white socks.

The family understands as much.

"Look, Penn State and Joe Paterno will be intertwined forever," Jay Paterno said. "There's no two ways you can separate them."

Jay recalled Penn State's trip to Alabama in 2010. He recalled attending the Citi BCS Championship Game at the Rose Bowl the season before, when the Crimson Tide played Texas. It has become fashionable among Alabama fans to wear the favorite pattern of their iconic coach, Paul "Bear" Bryant.

"Houndstooth hats," Jay said, "girls in houndstooth skirts. That's intertwined. Nick Saban can win 10 national championships but the name Bryant is still going to be paramount in Alabama."

Paterno will still be paramount in Happy Valley, whether or not the new coach, Bill O'Brien, wins one game or 10 national championships. Time, as in 62 seasons, 46 as head coach, dictates as much. Time, as in the long view, will heal all that ails Penn State. As Paterno is memoralized, as feelings are raw, the long view is difficult to maintain. But it's the only one that affords any relief.

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