— You could see Joe Paterno’s entire career in the sad eyes of Jay Paterno, his son and one of his assistant coaches at Penn State. When the Jerry Sandusky matter first blew up, Jay Paterno faced interviewers not with defiance, but rather melancholy resignation. He knew what had been, he saw what was coming and he seemed to experience the slow onset of grief in front of the public over his father’s fate and legacy.
Here was one of the great names in sports, whose black-rimmed glasses were as iconic as Bear Bryant’s houndstooth hat. Joe Paterno. He was the rare institution who was bigger than the institution that made him. He looked and dressed like somebody from a 1950s job interview, but he managed to remain relevant in an increasingly capitalistic sport up to the end.
Those who might suggest in the most strident terms that it is unfair to put so much emphasis on Joe Paterno’s connection to the Sandusky abomination when that was actually a tiny speck in a long and storied career probably acknowledge that it has to be done. He happened to be at the wheel when the program ran into a ditch. Even he admitted later to the Washington Post that “I didn’t know exactly how to handle it” and “I backed away” and turned it all over to others.
But the problem was that nobody was more powerful in State College, Pa., than Joe Paterno, who passed away Sunday at the age of 85. So when it came time for the most powerful man on campus to exercise that influence, he inexplicably delegated. It was no time for a hand-off, and as a result a proud career ended in controversy and exile.
As Joe Paterno would find out as an octogenarian, life is a cruel practitioner of irony. Sandusky is alleged to have ruined young lives by taking selfishness to a monstrous level. Until this all broke, Paterno’s reputation was associated with the molding of young men. His ex-players maintained an almost fanatical reverence for him.
It was so probably for a lot of reasons, but most of all because of his devotion to them. College football has become a bastion of climbers. Coaches are now major celebrities commanding unseemly sums, thanks to a rushing river of television money that shows no signs of slowing. Many of the more ambitious leap from job to job, from college town to college town, padding their resumes as they seek more glory and a fatter portfolio.
Paterno was never like that. He drew a modest salary by the standard of major college football coaches. He lived in a house with his family that, if it were for sale, an ordinary person might be able to afford. He emphasized fundamentals, and had little tolerance for the pandering that became necessary in order to lure increasingly narcissistic recruits.
The downside — pre-Sandusky scandal — was marked by his inability to let go. In 2000, his Nittany Lions went 5-7. That was his first losing season since 1988. It would have been considered acceptable except that three of the next four were also below-.500 seasons. Grumbling turned into heckling, and many in the Penn State community figured it was time for the gold watch engraved with the word “emeritus.”
But Paterno hung on, even though he became increasingly fragile with age. The perception was that he turned over so much day-to-day coaching responsibilities to assistants that his title of head coach was largely ceremonial. And that crown would lie uneasy as rivals told recruits that Paterno was headed to assisted living.
Paterno hung in. After all, that’s what they tell football players to do, right? Fight through adversity? Ignore pain? Discount the critics? It’s part of the culture. For Paterno, determination was there every day. It was on the chalkboard in his office. It was on the plate with his pasta. It was in his DNA.
Each of his final seven were winning seasons.
There was plenty of fodder for his detractors, as well. He had been accused of ignoring a raft of run-ins with the law by his players over the years, and in some cases by allegedly insisting to other school administrators that the disciplining of his players came under his purview, and his alone. He not-so-politely told them to butt out.
In 2006, the National Organization for Women demanded his resignation after he made a flippant comment about a sexual abuse case involving a Florida State player. In 2002, Penn State cornerback Anwar Phillips was accused of sexual assault and the university suspended him for two semesters. But before the suspension began, Paterno suited up Phillips to play in the Capital One Bowl against Auburn.
Paterno suffered from the disease of imperiousness. Among curmudgeons in coaching, he achieved platinum level. He would snap at a reporter who asked a question he didn’t feel like answering, or worse yet, a question he didn’t think a reporter even had a right to ask.
Today’s breed of college football coach is smoother, slicker and savvier, a direct genetic link to carefully branded political candidates. Paterno was not that. He was brusque, impatient and difficult. He was insulated and suspicious, as most people with great power eventually become.
In the end, when ugliness enshrouded Penn State, all of that worked against him. He was the wrong personality at the wrong moment. The entire horrible mess sideswiped him, left him dizzy and confused, then came back and hit him head on.
Men who have achieved greatness — and Paterno certainly is one of them — are often remembered fondly, even if they left a stench. That’s just the way success usually goes in America — the achievements stand out, the warts vanish.
With Paterno, it won’t be that way. There will be images of him on the sidelines, with white shirt and black tie, barking orders. There will be clips of him accepting hugs from his players after his two national titles. There will be memories of a raucous rally the night he was fired, with irate students pledging undying support.
But there will also be the crestfallen face of Jay Paterno, which says it all.