By Kevin Gorman, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Monday, January 23, 2012
There was a common belief in the college football world that Joe Paterno was haunted by Paul Bryant, determined to break the legendary Alabama coach's records because he never beat the Bear and worried about walking away because of Bryant's death a month after retirement.
If only Paterno could be remembered by his pursuit of excellence at Penn State, the way Bryant is at Alabama. Today, we would be talking about his 409 career victories, seven undefeated seasons, two national championships and, more importantly, his philanthropic and philosophic impact on sport.
Six words separate Paterno from such a legacy:
"I wish I had done more."
Joseph Vincent Paterno succumbed to lung cancer Sunday morning, two months after Penn State fired him following the release of those six words in his statement amid a child sexual abuse scandal that shook the foundation of the football program with which he was both sacrosanct and synonymous.
For critics, those six words should serve as an epitaph for Paterno. Supporters believe Paterno should be measured by all that he did during 61 years at Penn State, not what he failed to do when told of heinous allegations against the former defensive coordinator and architect of Linebacker U.
Take into consideration what Paterno, whose relationship with the media ranged from amiable to acrimonious, told the Tribune-Review in June 2008 about the "COMM 497G: Joe Paterno, Communications and the Media" class offered to Penn State students regarding the revered coach:
"I'd tell them to have a little pride in their writing, try to be accurate and don't go in with a slanted attitude. I'd tell them to be fair and open-minded."
After 85 years, Paterno deserves as much in death. There never will be another like him, for reasons good and bad. No coach will last six decades at one university, like Paterno did at Penn State. Nor will they be allowed to with such absolute authority, like Paterno had at Penn State.
The university capitalized on Paterno's name, brand and image, making him an iconic figure on its campus and around the country. Penn State sold everything from cardboard cutouts to coffee mugs in his likeness. The Creamery named an ice cream flavor, Peachy Paterno, in his honor. His statue stands outside Beaver Stadium, whose capacity expanded from 46,284 to 107,282 in the five decades he strolled the sidelines in cuffed khakis, white socks, black cleats and those trademark Coke-bottle glasses.
"Penn State lost its heart," former Nittany Lions cornerback Adam Taliaferro told ESPN, adding via Twitter: "Joe is and always will be Penn State."
There is danger in deifying a man, even one with great accomplishments. No one is infallible.
Too often, we looked at Paterno through only a narrow prism — deity or devil, depending on your rooting interest — that turned one of college football's charismatic characters into a caricature.
He was either the grandfatherly figure who donated millions to the library and symbolized his "Grand Experiment" by holding his players to a higher standard and demanding they get a degree. Or he was the sanctimonious figurehead whose refusal to retire left most of his loyal assistants jobless when he was handed a note with a number and fired by phone.
In truth, Joe Paterno was all of these things. He was a husband, a father of five, a grandfather of 17, a father figure to the thousands of players he coached at Penn State and a beloved coach to Nittany Lions fans. He also could be unforgiving and vindictive to those who crossed him.
In the end, Paterno made a decision that many deem unconscionable. He either followed protocol, by taking Mike McQueary's eyewitness account of Jerry Sandusky molesting a boy in the showers of the Lasch football building to his superiors. Or he did only what was required by law, minimizing McQueary's allegations and passing off the problem when he should have called the police himself and reported the crime.
Either way, he stayed silent until an alleged cover-up became public.
That's as much a part of his legacy as winning more games than any coach in the history of major college football. Paterno was so successful because he held himself and his players to a higher standard: success with honor. Yet, when faced with the most critical choice of his career, Paterno failed to live up to the standard he set.
Joe Paterno is gone, and with him so is Penn State's heart.
If not its soul.
Reaction to Paterno's death
From a former U.S. president to a former Penn State president, notable people offered their perspectives on Sunday:
"I was deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Joe Paterno. He was an outstanding American who was respected not only on the field of play but in life generally -- and he was, without a doubt, a true icon in the world of sports. I was proud he was a friend of mine." — Former President George H.W. Bush
"I am saddened to hear about the death of Joe Paterno. He did so much for the game of football, and he was a good person with integrity who cared for so many people. I considered him a dear friend." — Dan Rooney, Steelers chairman emeritus and ambassador to Ireland
"We grieve for the loss of Joe Paterno, a great man who made us a greater university. His dedication to ensuring his players were successful both on the field and in life is legendary, and his commitment to education is unmatched in college football. ... The university plans to honor him for his many contributions and to remember his remarkable life and legacy." — Rodney Erickson, Penn State president
"It was my privilege and honor to work with Joe Paterno for more than 16 years. He was a distinguished American, a legendary coach and Penn State's greatest ambassador. He provided unprecedented leadership for academic advancement, philanthropy and athletic excellence and integrity for more than 60 years." — Graham Spanier, former Penn State president
"Dottie and I would like to convey our deepest sympathy to Sue and her family. Nobody will be able to take away the memories we all shared of a great man, his family and all the wonderful people who were a part of his life. ... Joe preached toughness, hard work and clean competition. Most importantly, he had the courage to practice what he preached." — Jerry Sandusky, former Penn State defensive coordinator
"Words cannot express the sorrow my family and I feel. Joe has been an integral part of my life for more than 35 years. Joe coached me, mentored me, taught me what it meant to compete with integrity and honor, and above all demonstrated with each day that he lived, the power of humility." — Tim Curley, former Penn State athletic director
"I had the sincere honor and distinct pleasure to work with Joe for many, many years at Penn State. No one loved Penn State more than Joe. We will all miss him." — Gary Schultz, former Penn State vice president
"The terms 'icon' and 'legend' have been often used to describe Joe Paterno. ... But to those of us who played for him, to those of us who coached with him and to those of us who had the privilege to call him a friend, Joe Paterno was much more. ... Coach Paterno never believed that his role as 'Coach' ended after practice, or when the fourth quarter wound down or when a student-athlete graduated. He was a coach for life. I am deeply grateful to have had Coach Paterno in my life. He was the epitome of class, and his spirit will live on in all of us who had the great honor of knowing him." — Tom Bradley, former Penn State interim head coach
"His legacy as the winningest coach in major college football and his generosity to Penn State as an institution and to his players stand as monuments to his life. As both man and coach, Joe Paterno confronted adversities, both past and present, with grace and forbearance. His place in our state's history is secure." — Tom Corbett, Pennsylvania governor
"On behalf of alumni here in Pittsburgh I would like to thank Joe for all he has done for Penn State the past 62 years. ... I promise we alums will fight FOREVER to defend this great man's good name and honor." — Daniel Byrd, president of Penn State Alumni Association Greater Pittsburgh chapter
"To Sue and the Paterno children: Thank you for so unselfishly sharing your husband and father with so many of us for so long. Through him, we all witnessed and learned lessons of respect, loyalty and, of course, 'Success with Honor.' Further, he taught us how to be elite without being elitist. ... The most significant tribute to Joe Paterno is the millions of fans -- everyday men, women and children — he not only entertained but inspired to be better human beings. When we lead our lives with generosity, commitment and humility, we carry on the legacy of Joseph V. Paterno." — Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship
"The Penn State football program is one of college football's iconic programs because it was led by an icon in the coaching profession in Joe Paterno. There are no words to express my respect for him as a man and as a coach. To be following in his footsteps at Penn State is an honor. Our families, our football program, our university and all of college football have suffered a great loss." — Bill O'Brien, Penn State football coach
"We are deeply saddened by the loss of Joe Paterno. His passing marks a tremendous loss for Penn State, college football and for countless fans, coaches and student-athletes." — Jim Delany, Big Ten commissioner
"Joe Paterno's impact on the game of college football was great, as was his influence on the countless number of players who called him 'Coach.' The University of Pittsburgh offers its heartfelt condolences to his family and loved ones." — Statement on behalf of the University of Pittsburgh
"One of the greatest college coaches of all time and a great man." — Jimmy Johnson, former Miami coach
"Joe Paterno was an icon above icons in the football coaching profession. What he accomplished as a football coach will never ever, ever, be threatened. When you think of a word to describe Joe Paterno and what he did at Penn State, the word 'unimaginable' comes to mind. That a man could give that much of himself to coach football and shape young men's lives at one school for that many years speaks volumes for what that man is about." — Don Nehlen, former West Virginia coach
"He loved college football & coached with commitment to excellence. He loved his players & his players loved him." — Lou Holtz, former Notre Dame coach (via Twitter)
"I've coached around 300 college games, and only once when I've met the other coach at midfield prior to the game have I asked a photographer to take a picture of me with the other coach. That happened in the Citrus Bowl after the '97 season when we were playing Penn State. ... I still have that photo in the den at my house. That's the admiration I have for Joe Paterno." — Steve Spurrier, South Carolina coach
"Keep the Paterno family in your prayers during this tough time. To the greatest R.I.P Joe P" — Maurkice Pouncey, Steelers center (via Twitter)
"Deeply saddened about the loss of my coach & mentor, Joe Paterno. You have been a positive influence to so many young men on & off the field" — Derrick Williams, former Penn State wide receiver (via Twitter)
"At a loss for words... One of the most influential men in our nations history. By his passing PSU nations grows even stronger. Love you Joe" — Jordan Norwood, former Penn State wide receiver (via Twitter)
"R.I.P Coach. I owe you so much! My prayers are with the Paterno family and the Penn State Family." — Kermit Buggs, former Penn State assistant coach (via Twitter)
"RIP Joe...thank you" — Derek Moye, Penn State senior receiver (via Twitter)
"RIPJoePaterno Nothing but love and gratitude!" — Nate Stupar, Penn State senior linebacker (via Twitter)
"Rest In Peace Coach. You have been my idol. You are a one of a kind man. Words cannot express all my feelings." — Graham Zug, former Penn State wide receiver (via Twitter)
"We should not be discourage by his death but encouraged by his life..it would be a blessing to impact others the way he did" — Devon Still, Penn State senior defensive tackle (via Twitter)
"I had the great opportunity to meet and get to know Joe Paterno through college recruiting and he truly was an amazing person." — Brian Cushing, Houston Texans tight end (via Twitter)
"So sad to hear the news of Joe Pa's passing! What an impact he made on college football! Many prayers for the family" — Jason Witten, Dallas Cowboys tight end (via Twitter)
Joe Paterno by the numbers
409: Career victories (all at Penn State, the most in Division I history)
247: Players drafted into NFL
78: First-team All-Americans
62: Years as a coach at Penn State (46 as head coach)
49: Academic All-Americans
37: Bowl appearances (all-time record)
35: Teams that finished in the Top 25
33: First-round selections in the NFL Draft
25: Appearances in New Year's Day bowl games
17-8: Record in New Year's bowl games
24: Bowl victories (all-time record); 24-12-1 overall
24: Times that Penn State won the Lambert-Meadowlands Trophy, emblematic of Eastern football supremacy
23: Finishes in the top 10 of the national rankings
12: U.S. presidents, starting with Harry Truman, who have served since he joined Penn State's coaching staff
8: Former players in the College Football Hall of Fame (John Cappelletti, Keith Dorney, Jack Ham, Ted Kwalick, Lydell Mitchell, Dennis Onkotz, Mike Reid and Curt Warner)
7: Undefeated regular seasons
6: Fiesta Bowl victories (Paterno never lost the game)
5: AFCA Coach of the Year honors
5: Undefeated, untied seasons (1968, 1969, 1973, 1986 and 1994)
4: Former players enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame (Ham, Franco Harris, Lenny Moore and Mike Munchak)
3: Big Ten titles (1994, 2005 and 2008)
2: National championships (1982 and 1986)
1: Heisman Trophy winners (Cappelletti)