published Monday, January 23rd, 2012

Wiedmer: Likely long limbo for Paterno legacy

When ESPN analyst Brent Musburger asked Joe Paterno a couple of years ago why the 80-plus-year-old Penn State football coach hadn't yet called it a career, Joe Pa reportedly replied, "Bear Bryant. He didn't live six months after he retired. I'm afraid the same thing might happen to me."

History shows Bryant died 28 days after his final game as Alabama's head coach. Sunday morning, Paterno officially lost his life to lung cancer a mere 83 days after he was forced out at PSU midway through his 46th year as head coach.

Not that anyone thinks it's that simple, as black and white as his trademark coaching shoes and athletic socks.

As friends, family and media conjectured Sunday, the 85-year-old Paterno probably passed away as much from a broken heart and guilty conscience as cancer.

How could it have been otherwise? You just don't watch your career blown to smithereens by a child-sexual-abuse scandal centering on your former defensive coordinator -- a scandal to which you could have brought a quicker close but instead distanced yourself from, a scandal that leaves at least a handful of young men emotionally scarred for life -- and not be laid low by it.

At least not unless you're almost as big a monster as the former defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, appears to be.

On the other hand, until Nov. 5, 2011 -- the day the Sandusky charges broke nationally -- Joseph Vincent Paterno was the gold standard of college football coaches. Most wins. Two national championships. One of the top graduation rates. A Clorox-clean rep regarding NCAA rules. Gifts of more than $4 million to the school's library during his 60 years living in Happy Valley.

Or as former Nittany Lions defensive tackle Brandon Noble told ESPN: "[Paterno] wanted you to leave as a 22-year-old with a degree in your hand and a better man than you came in."

No wonder ESPN reporter Tom Rinaldi repeatedly used the words, "It's complicated," to describe the Happy Valley community's feelings for Joe Pa during the network's live shots from the base of the handsome bronze statue of Paterno outside the school's Beaver Stadium.

Life is complicated. Life throws you unimaginable twists and turns, often without warning. And right or wrong, how you handle those unexpected changes often defines your legacy.

Sadly, Paterno handled his unfortunate situation with Sandusky about as badly as possible for a man who continually preached doing the right thing. Told by an assistant in 2002 that the aide had seen Sandusky (who'd retired in 1999) behaving inappropriately with a young boy in a campus shower, Paterno passed the problem up the athletic department ladder.

Because it remains unclear just exactly how graphically the assistant described Sandusky's deeply disturbing behavior, some will say Paterno did nothing wrong, and by a strict legal standard they seem to be right.

But this was the same coach who wanted his players to leave PSU as better men than when they arrived. The same coach who had done so much to make Penn State a far better school than when he first arrived as an assistant in the 1950s.

A man asking so much more of others than the average college football coach should should have demanded more of himself than the bare minimum, shouldn't he?

Still, it was a single awful mistake in a career full of outstanding achievements, and that should never be forgotten.

Or as ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit noted: "He turned so many guys into such quality people."

So, so many. For so, so long. When so, so many in his profession did so little.

Beyond that, we like to project ourselves as a nation that forgives. And if we can't forgive a man who has done as much good in his life as Paterno, a man who has done far more right than wrong, whom can we forgive?

Yet it also doesn't help Paterno's legacy to have people such as Musburger attempt to dismiss the coach's decisions surrounding Sandusky as a "little lapse in judgment."

A little lapse in judgment is driving 80 mph in a 55-mph zone. A little lapse in judgment is knowingly bouncing a check. Passing the buck on something as sick and disgusting as child sexual abuse is a major lapse in judgment.

Several years ago, discussing the worst coaching moments of his life, Paterno returned to the 1978 Sugar Bowl and the goal-line stand that made Bear's Crimson Tide national champs and the Nittany Lions also-rans.

Said Paterno: "I thought maybe I was getting too old, that maybe I should turn it over to somebody who has a little more guts than I have in the clutch."

Ironically, it was his seeming lack of guts away from football that will sadly taint his legacy while forcing Sandusky's victims to summon up more guts than anyone should have to in bringing a monster to justice.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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