Joe Paterno: The noble, and the ignoble

Jan 27, 2012

When an 85-year old man dies, you cannot call it a tragedy.  Sad, yes, but tragic, no.  

But Joe Paterno’s passing might be an exception.  Born in Brooklyn in 1926, he enrolled at Brown University, where he played quarterback. He still holds a school record -- for interceptions -- with 14. 

After graduating, Paterno was supposed to go to law school, but instead followed his coach, Rip Engle, to Penn State.  

His father was beside himself.  “For God’s sake, what did you go to college for?”  That was 1950.  62 years later, that’s where Joe Paterno died. 

In between, even his critics admit, Paterno did an amazing amount of good.  He led the Nittany Lions to five undefeated seasons, three Big Ten titles, two national crowns, and more wins, 409, than any coach in the history of football.   

Even better, unlike many of his peers, Paterno did not make any deals with the devil for those victories.  He embarked on something he called “The Grand Experiment,” in which he expected his players to be “student-athletes” – truly.  

It wasn’t just a slogan to him.  In the Big Ten, Penn State’s players rank second behind only Northwestern’s in graduation rate – and ahead of the average rate for all Penn State students.  His African-American players – too often ignored in big time college programs -- performed particularly well.

Along the way, Paterno turned down offers from three NFL teams and the University of Michigan, which had to settle for a man named Bo Schembechler.  

Paterno and his wife Sue donated more than $4 million to Penn State, and helped raise over $13 million for a library expansion, now called the Paterno Library.  After he led Penn State to join the Big Ten, the school’s research income tripled.  It’s hard to think of anyone who’s done more good for any university than Joe Paterno did for Penn State.

And yet. Some of the very qualities that made him so effective, led to his demise – and worse. He used his power for great change, yet became so powerful it seems his court was too scared to tell him bad news. 

In 2004, when former Penn State president Graham Spanier asked for Paterno’s resignation – not because of any scandal but because his teams were losing too many games – Paterno told him, No, they’d be fine.  And they were, finishing third in the nation.  Spanier didn’t dare test him again.  

With this kind of unquestioned authority, it’s not surprising no one wanted to alarm Paterno when the Jerry Sandusky scandal first surfaced.  And not in 2011, but in 1998, when Penn State received its first police report about Sandusky’s conduct.  

It’s harder to understand why they didn’t take more serious action – or any at all – in 2002, after an assistant coach told Paterno that he saw Sandusky assaulting a young boy.  Paterno told his bosses – who promptly did nothing.  Paterno himself never pursued it.  

We still have more questions than answers, and some of our questions no doubt have gone to the grave. Whenever I’m tempted to rush to judgment, I’m reminded of the Duke lacrosse case.  

But some things we know for sure.  

A week before he died, Paterno said he should have done more.  I’m willing to concede that a man of his generation would be uncertain what to do.  But being uncertain, and being indifferent, are not the same things.  

The Paternos have 17 grandchildren, and it’s safe to assume that if any of them had been endangered by a man like Sandusky, Paterno would not be so passive. 

The damage done is incalculable.  And not just to Paterno’s reputation, but to Penn State’s – and most seriously, to the helpless boys in their care they failed to protect.  

How do you make a final judgment on someone who did so much good, and yet was blind to so much evil?

The two simply cannot be reconciled.  

And that is just one of the tragedies we are left with.