Commentary

Joe Paterno: Hard lessons, bitter truths

His death provides a much-needed opportunity to re-evaluate coaches and power

Originally Published: January 22, 2012
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

When any person dies, his or her time must be viewed in its totality, out of respect for a life lived, to give the ritual of death its dignity; and for the sake of posterity, to provide clarity as emotions surge and cool over the months and years.

For the famous, it is a difficult task, for that totality is a myth. Only the public face exists; the rest is projection. For Joe Paterno, who died Sunday morning at the age of 85, his 60-year football life transformed in less than three weeks from icon to infamous, a total picture of his time might be an impossibility, at least now. The twin ends of his coaching career and life were so defined by some of his final public words -- in many ways a chilling statement from a man who won more college football games than anyone in history. Those words did not contain a hint of double meaning.

[+] EnlargeJoe Paterno
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarIt will be difficult to separate the way Joe Paterno spent most of his career from the way it ended.

"In hindsight, I wish I had done more," he said in the days before his firing.

Long before the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke, Paterno had become so much a part of Penn State football, and it had been so much a part of him, that it was commonly presumed the old man would not survive without the game to which he gave his life. It is said of longtime marriages that once one partner passes, the will for the other to remain evaporates.

In this case, that's a wistful narrative, but Paterno did not die of a broken heart. He died of lung cancer. Over the next hours, days and weeks, there will be a reflex to frame his death within the prism of his final, disgraced months, both from supporters who believe the Sandusky scandal hastened his death and unnecessarily destroyed a good man, and from the detractors who believe that only the enormous specter of Paterno's powerful name kept him from being held even more accountable by the public, and law enforcement.

His death marks the end of the Penn State dynasty, a process that began when he was fired on the night of Nov. 9. The school will never hold the same singular, iconic place it did during Paterno's 20th century. And the people he touched -- those who worked with and played for him, as well as Penn State and college football fans who care so deeply about sports and its place in the national culture -- will remember him fondly and reverentially. Paterno provided a kind of wallpaper for their lives. He was familiar. He was there. The uniforms, the blue and white that suggested toughness and modesty at the same time, never seemed to change. His program gave its people and a university an identity, a certain sturdiness that is understandably lamentable as time passes and it gets taken away.

Despite the urge, Paterno's death should not be used as an opportunity to massage and soften the events that led to his downfall, for it is possible to mourn his passing without rewriting the truths that are known.

During Paterno's time, few conversations about the college football game took place without his mention. He was that big, that important to the sport and that accomplished. The people in State College will appropriately remember Paterno's time as theirs, marked all along the way with their children growing up as they grew older and grayer, with houses being bought and sold, with weddings planned, with grandchildren entering the world. Longevity is the special power of the dynasty. It gives life shape and order.

Despite the urge, Paterno's death should not be used as an opportunity to massage and soften the events that led to his downfall, for it is possible to mourn his passing without rewriting the truths that are known. The truth is that his passing should also mark the end of the college sports coaching dynasty. For all the victories and championships, the recruiting coups and runaway revenues, it cannot be understated that his death stands enshrouded in bittersweet contradictions because of the dynasty he was allowed to build. Paterno had too much power with not nearly enough oversight. He was bigger than the school, and the school cowered to him. Paterno gave millions back to Penn State; and as his power grew and grew unchecked over four decades, the university lost the ability to control whether he was benevolent or a tyrant.

It was not a power particularly special to Paterno, but to his industry. The entire culture of the coach deserves deconstruction and revision, for the same can be said in varying degrees of Bryant and Knight, Bowden and Calhoun, Krzyzewski and Boeheim.

When it was time for Paterno to use the power that he had accrued -- when he became aware that for years, children allegedly were being molested under the ceiling of the football monument he had built -- he did not lead. He passed the information on. He did not care enough or do enough or use enough of his power or show enough of his leadership to be worthy of that monument. That is why he will be judged so harshly. His wife, Sue, told The Washington Post: "If someone touched my child, there wouldn't be a trial. I would have killed them. That would be my attitude, because you have destroyed someone for life."

[+] EnlargeJoe Paterno
AP Photo/Nick WassPaterno's power at Penn State was unchecked.

Paterno did not commit the crime, nor was he the only player in what amounted to a colossal institutional failure. But he did not live up to what was expected of someone who had meant so much and controlled so much of what took place at his school. He failed in the one test that mattered the very most.

Over time, the Sandusky scandal might not ultimately define Paterno -- and perhaps it should not -- but the myth of the coach as great leader beyond the playing field ultimately exposed him and brought down his program. At the end, it was an expectation Paterno could not meet.

And if his supporters care to apply inverse logic to him -- that Paterno was just a football coach and should not have been expected to shoulder the load of the Sandusky responsibility when the police, the university president and other school officials failed, as well -- then he should not have accepted the role of power broker he embraced for 45 years.

Paterno was paid millions of dollars because he generated billions of dollars, and the generation of that money allowed for the generation of a narrative -- Paterno as the molder of young men -- that he did not live up to in real time when challenged. The totality of Paterno's public life -- the life we know -- is just that he was a football coach, and a very successful one.

He was also a man who as the leader of a dynasty made a series of serious errors in judgment whose costs are not being taken to the grave with him. Those costs will live on, in people known in a grand jury report as Victim No. 1, Victim No. 8, Victim No. 12 … They will go on living a very different existence, and that is also part of the totality of Joe Paterno.

He died knowing that bitter truth. He told Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post, in what was the equivalent of a deathbed interview, that he "backed off." The truth is that he should have done something. He should have moved forward.

The rest of the multibillion-dollar sports industrial complex lives on, too, hopefully having learned one lesson from Joe Paterno's sad ending and Penn State's collective failure to live up to its ideal: Compared to real leadership, winning isn't everything. It might well have turned out to be nothing.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42.

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