Sunday, January 22, 2012

Joe Paterno, rest in peace

Rest in peace, Joe Paterno. I'm sad to see you go, especially in the manner that your death came.

I was never a Penn State fan, but I was always a respecter of Joe Paterno. Unlike most of his college football coaching colleagues, he seemed genuinely concerned, first and foremost, with the character, education and success of his players. He could have worked his way up the coaching ladder, going to ever-larger schools until he reached the pinnacle, the football factories of the NCAA. He eschewed the showboating and grand spectacles of win-at-any-cost football programs. He insisted on plain uniforms without player names on the jerseys. He lived in a modest house, by coaching standards. He gave generously to charities. He went to Penn State and stayed there until they kicked him out.

The kicking out was the saddest part of Paterno's story. He was summarily fired by Penn State after it was revealed that he had been told that Jerry Sandusky, his former trusted assistant, had sexually abused a young boy in the Penn State football complex. Paterno reported the incident to university administrators. Police were never called. Sandusky is now accused of abusing several boys over a period of years, both during and after his Penn State coaching career. In his only comments about the incident, Paterno said he did what he was required to do. He reported the accusation to his superiors (who have also been fired). He also said he had only vague information about the incident and has trouble imagining that sort of conduct. It's easy to believe that Paterno was naive about child sexual abuse. It's easy to believe that he could not conceive of his old friend doing anything so despicable.

Paterno accepted his dismissal as gracefully as anyone can accept being fired after 41 faithful, successful years. One mistake can wipe away all those successful years, and that incident (which is thus far only an accusation; Sandusky has not been tried or admitted guilt) will undoubtedly taint the stainless legacy Paterno had built at Penn State.

Paterno's legacy will survive his error in judgment relating to Sandusky. His 400-plus wins will be an insurmountable peak to conquer. His insistence on education and sportsmanship will endure. In 1968, he explained his philosophy to Sports Illustrated's Dan Jenkins: “We’re trying to win football games; don’t misunderstand that. But I don’t want it to ruin our lives if we lose. I don’t want us ever to become the kind of place where an 8-2 season is a tragedy. Look at that day outside. It’s clear, it’s beautiful, the leaves are turning, the land is pretty, and it’s quiet. If losing a game made me miserable, I couldn’t enjoy such a day.” That sort of clear thinking is needed in sports.

If only he had never hired Jerry Sandusky.

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