Remember JoPa the man, not the mess

The ubiquitous thick-rimmed “Coke bottle” glasses, the high-water, rolled-up khakis that showcased those white socks and black football shoes and those unassumingly vanilla Penn State uniforms belied a colorful, charismatic character.

Joe Paterno was as engaging as they came.

Spend five minutes with him and you quickly grasped that disarming magnetism that impressed the small-town parent to the big-time politician. It made Paterno truly larger than life, an iconic figure endeared as much for his philanthropy and paternalistic devotion to everything and everyone associated with Penn State as he was for winning more football games than any other collegiate head coach.

That should be remembered and celebrated now that he’s gone.

The final two months shouldn’t fully overshadow the first 60 years of a magnificent coaching career.

But when assessing the totality of Paterno’s import, it cannot be forgotten that he also stood as an example of uncontested football power run amok. His bosses asked him to step down following a 4-7 season in 2004 and Paterno vehemently refused. Those entrusted with the actual daily functioning of a publicly subsidized university cowered in fear of the man because they knew he was arguably the single most powerful individual in the entire state of Pennsylvania.

That his sad death Sunday came only 10 weeks after the university he loved unceremoniously fired him will only further inflame emotions still burned raw on both sides of the argument. Was Paterno a wrongly persecuted innocent bystander of those child sexual abuse allegations against a former assistant or a willing enabler to a culture of institutional secrecy that kept public light off those allegations for almost 10 years?

The scandal indirectly, yet indelibly stains the legacy. But right now, it’s more important remembering the man than the mess that pushed him out of the door. We should never forget the alleged victims and the innocence unconscionably stripped from them. But for these impending days of public grief and formal ceremony, it should be primarily about Paterno’s family and former players and the very deep personal loss they’ve endured.

There will be a flood of eulogies and memories, but what makes Paterno’s passing from cancer even sadder is that he’s another example of a person so consumed with football and its all-encompassing aura that it became his entire existence. Once that source of self-fulfillment got taken away, it was though Paterno lost that compass that steered him every day of his life for six decades. He defined himself as a football coach first and a family man second.

Paterno said that he kept coaching into his 80s because he privately feared becoming Bear Bryant. The legendary Alabama head coach with the omnipresent houndstooth hat stepped down following the 1982 season. When asked what he would do with his life following his last game, Bryant cryptically noted that he would “croak in a week.”

He died almost a month later. The cause of death was a massive heart attack, one day after he got a clean bill of health from his doctor. But a contributing factor could’ve been how Bryant physically and emotionally withered once separated from that football umbilical.

Paterno didn’t last much longer.

Perhaps that could serve as one last teaching point. There are things more important than football.


Posted by Tribune News Services

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