Now That He’s Been Fired From Penn State, What Will Joe Paterno’s Legacy Be?
I’m still having a lot of trouble wrapping my head around what has happened to former Penn State University football coach Joe Paterno over the course of the last seven days. Just a week ago, Paterno—or Joe Pa as he’s affectionately known to many students at Penn State—was the all-time winningest coach in major college football and a guy who stood for everything that is right in college athletics. He seemingly played by the rules during his lengthy 46-year head coaching career at PSU and led the Nittany Lions to five undefeated seasons. He did so without catching the ire of the NCAA like so many other big-time coaches and, despite the lack of BCS success in recent years, he ran a relatively clean program that was well-respected by people all over the country. In a sentence, he was the most famous and successful college football coach of the last 50 years.
And now, it’s all over. Tragically. By now, I’m sure you’ve heard exactly why Paterno was fired from Penn State late Wednesday night, so I’ll spare you of having to read about every detail. But to sum up what happened, Paterno was allegedly aware that his former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky sexually abused at least one 10-year-old boy on the Penn State campus in 2002. He reported it to the PSU athletic director but didn’t do anything about it after that. In short, he’s been accused of being negligent and not doing the right thing in the matter, which indirectly resulted in Sandusky sexually abusing a handful of other boys in the meantime. As a result of the media firestorm that he followed, Joe Pa is no longer the Nittany Lions head coach and will now fade off into the distance as the Penn State program looks to move forward.
With that in mind, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what Paterno’s legacy will be now that his career is officially over. At 84, it’s safe to say that he won’t be applying for another coaching job anytime soon, so he doesn’t have the luxury of trying to rebuild his name elsewhere. He’s also so entrenched in Penn State that I find it hard to believe that he’d want to go anywhere else, even if he was younger and was given the opportunity. All he can do now is hope that history looks back on him a little more favorably than people are looking at him now.
I personally think—or, rather, know—that this story is only going to get worse before it gets better. At this point, I actually think Joe Pa would probably be more than happy to have history look back at him the way he’s being portrayed now. Because in a few months, there are likely to be gruesome details about Sandusky that only make Paterno look even worse than he already does for not reporting him to the authorities back in the early 2000s. And, in that regard, Paterno would be well-served at least trying to dictate his own legacy by speaking out ASAP about what he did and did not know in regards to Sandusky in order to try and clear his name of any wrongdoing. Soon, he’s not going to want anything to do with the guy that he called a friend for so many years.
The way I see it, though, Paterno has two choices here: He can seize the moment and do everything in his power to live the rest of his life telling the world about his legacy. That includes writing a memoir, doing as many interviews as possible and, generally, being more open and inviting than he has been during his coaching career. Or, he can completely shut himself off from the world as he’s been prone to do in the past and hope—make that, pray—that his body of work speaks for itself a few years down the line.
Either way, this sexual abuse scandal has rocked Paterno’s world and left him in a very precarious situation. For 46 years, he worked tirelessly to build up his name and reputation and, in a matter of just a week, all of that was taken away from him. I’m not letting Paterno off the hook by any stretch of the imagination here. In fact, I think he’d probably be best served by living up to the “humanitarian” title that he earned at Penn State (it’s inscribed next to a statue of him on campus) and acting a lot more sensitively towards the victims of Sandusky’s terrible crimes. But I also believe that Paterno deserves to leave this earth one day with a little bit of dignity intact.
Does it sound like he screwed up big time in this sexual abuse scandal? You bet it does. But it’s also important to remember that he is not the suspect in all of this, Sandusky is. And we already know what his legacy is. Before we write him off, let’s give Paterno the chance to leave his own legacy. Starting now. I really didn’t think he’d have to do that one day. But, he does. So, what’s your next move, Joe Pa? I’m still having trouble wrapping my head around all of this, but I’m anxious to see what it will be. As are millions of other college football fans out there. Prove to us you’re the guy that we thought you were. Or don’t and get stuck with the legacy that the world is ready to give you. It’s your decision.