How, in 140 characters, to sum up the decades of good done by one of college football’s greatest and most enduring coaches yet pay adequate deference to the unspeakable controversy that ensnared him during his final months?
By watching Twitter, I could see others struggling. They and I settled on a simple “RIP” message, living to opine another day in another forum that allows more depth of thought.
I deleted the tweet when it became known that reports of Paterno’s death were premature, but his Sunday passing cleared passage down the long, winding road.
And it led me around a sharp curve to a sudden stop sign.
All I could see was a then-70-something football coach who thought he had seen and heard it all.
He had long since mastered the winning formula and, being Joe Paterno, had long since set a high standard for his profession in terms of thinking beyond the lines. We’ve all read the testimonials that document how much he cared about his sport, college athletics in general, academics and Penn State University, his employer and beneficiary of 61 years.
Loved the story told by Alabama coach Nick Saban, ex of Michigan State, about Paterno heading a committee that granted a sixth year of eligibility to a Michigan State player. That player ended up costing Penn State on the field.
So, Joe Paterno was a guy who clearly demonstrated a deep concern for doing the right thing. He had done it for decades and, again, thought he’d seen and heard everything that even a broad-minded football coach would ever see and hear.
Then a panicked graduate assistant came to him describing something horrific. Mike McQueary tells the boss of bosses in college football that he witnessed long-time former assistant Jerry Sandusky doing something unspeakable to a 10-year-old boy in the shower.
What was the game plan for that?
What did the play chart say to call, and for that matter whom to call?
Yes, whether technically first or not, the legendary “JoePa” got to be known as the first among his profession to deal with alleged sexual abuse of children within his domain.
By any measure other than Pennsylvania law, he handled it inadequately. By the very regrets he expressed in his final days, he wished he had done more than trust it to his superiors, who have been charged in the matter.
Almost 10 years later, it surfaced as the ugliest scandal to ever hit college football. This wasn’t cheating for advantage. This was alleged sexual abuse of children.
The beleaguered Catholic Church suddenly had company, and public ire had turned on Joe Paterno, college football’s approximation of a living pontiff.
Even more than Sandusky, the man accused of committing these horrible acts, people outside of the Penn State rooting interest wanted to blame Paterno.
We all know how it turned out. Penn State fired him not long before a cancer diagnosis, and he died … some say of a broken heart.
So how to sum up Paterno’s suddenly complicated legacy?
Well, let’s start with the good stuff: 409 victories and two national championships; the impressive academic achievements and graduation rates of his players; hundreds of millions of dollars contributed or raised for his university; and his gravitas many times lent to issues of athlete welfare.
He had a life well-lived and career well-played lined up long before facing the most grave of non-football issues to cross his or any other college football coach’s desk.
His profession can thank him for unwillingly becoming the face of mishandling the whole child sexual abuse thing. College coaches now have a tragic blueprint of what the public expects if such things come to their attention.
So beware, image-conscious athletics directors and presidents, because your coaches now know it’s on them to take things to law enforcement and, inevitably, the public.
Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @jmedley_star.