Sympathy for the Devil: Joe Paterno and the Long Goodbye


For many people, there comes a time when your ideals give way to pragmatism; when you stop fighting the good fight, and hunker down to wait for retirement or death. It’s a hard thing to realize you’ve outstayed your welcome and outlived your usefulness, and that the scrap heap and the grave await us all.

The sexual abuse scandal at Penn State has resulted in a public outcry that will likely mean the end of Joe Paterno’s long career, and taint his legacy as a beloved figure in college football. And it didn’t have to be this way.

Paterno is one of the faces on college football’s Mount Rushmore, along with Florida State’s Bobby Bowden and Alabama’s Paul Bryant. Bowden’s greatest successes came after Bryant, but Paterno was a contemporary, and they coached against each other, most notably in the 1979 Sugar Bowl.

Paterno is among the last of the old guard, a throwback to an earlier time, before Pro Combat uniforms and dozens of cable sports channels. He’s as plain and traditional as the Nittany Lion helmets. He’s in the record books as the winningest FBS coach in college history, despite the opinion of many that he’s been a figurehead for years.

In the early 1980s people called for Bryant to resign, and he was asked what he would do after college football. “I’ll croak in a week,” he famously said. His words were prophetic: he died one month after coaching his last game. By the time he left, the game was starting to pass him by. Teams were starting to emphasize an aerial attack with fleet wide receivers, something anathema to Bryant’s ground game built around solid defense.

A young man from Alabama, Bowden got his chance to play for his beloved Crimson Tide, and wanted badly to coach there. He instead made his name at upstart Florida State, turning the Seminoles into a powerhouse in the 1990s with the run-and-gun. His storied career ended with a whimper, not a bang; standing on the sidelines barely involved in the game at all while others did the actual coaching. As the Seminoles sank into mediocrity, the calls for his removal grew deafening, and he was eventually pushed out.

Those same calls were echoing in College Station, Pennsylvania long before this horrendous scandal came to light. Paterno had taken up a position in the upstairs box, and it’s doubtful he’s done much more than passively watch the game for years. The cries for his removal will now reach a crescendo, and Paterno likely will not last the week as head coach, despite his son’s pathetic attempts to say that all is well.

To be completely clear: in no way is this an attempt to excuse Paterno’s inaction in the face of the evil that has been done, or to pardon an old man that should have retired long before this scandal came to light. There is likewise no comparison between this and the ways in which Bryant or Bowden reached the end of their careers, or to compare the quality of their character.

Sport brings out the emotional irrational side of people, and gray areas tend to be left outside the stadium. In this instance, fans as well as the media have taken to the airwaves and the internet to proclaim how mercilessly they would beat the man that committed these shocking acts, and how swifty they would kick Paterno out. They’ve also said what they would have done had they been Paterno in this situation.

The fact is, you don’t know what you’d do, because you’re not in his situation. You’re not a legend. You’re not an icon in your state, with the ability to surround yourself with relatives and acolytes and worshipers. You’re not the all-time winningest anything, and you aren’t a relic of a different era. You simply are not walking in his old-style black Adidas.

Paterno is done; he’s out. And rightfully so. So let’s put down the pitchforks and let the monster leave the village. But as we do, let’s all take a moment to consider all the things we’ve done that, in retrospect, weren’t the best decision. The small fibs that hurt no one. The charity and love we didn’t show when we had the opportunity. The times we chose the safety and comfort over getting involved.

Paterno absolutely must be removed from his position, by an act of the university if he does not do so himself. But in the feverish emotions of the moment, remember that at some point you too will be a relic, clinging to a world that has long passed you by. You’ll look back at all your sins – both of commission and omission – and wonder if you could have done anything differently.

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