Joe Paterno died on Saturday evening at the age of 85. He was coach of Penn State’s football program between 1966 and 2011, a span of 45 years. He both appeared in and won more bowl games than any other coach.
Yet he’ll be remembered for something else completely.
When someone is part of a program for as long as Paterno was at Penn State, the immediate question is one of legacy. It’s a fair question: he was a coach for a long time; his teams went undefeated five times, won three Big 10 championships and two national championships. His career, as a whole, is one of the better coaching careers in all of sports, not just college football.
And it’s all going to be overshadowed.
His programs were notable for being clean, especially by NCAA standards. Under him, the Nittany Lions were never under sanction by the NCAA, never had to vacate a bowl game or were written out of a record book. They were never banned from bowl games or had to forfeit scholarships. His teams weren’t always good – they haven’t played in a major bowl since 2008 or won one since 2005 – but they weren’t as dirty as other programs. Not by the usual standard.
We might never know the whole truth about what happened between Jerry Sandusky and Joe Paterno. Thanks to grand jury testimony, we have an idea of what Sandusky is alleged to have done. If Paterno knew then what we know only now, knew and helped sweep it under the rug, he committed an act of repugnance which should come to define his career.
When he only reported Sandusky to his bosses, and not to the police, he failed morally. He decided that football and keeping his program “clean” was more important than going to the police and protecting children from a sexual predator.
He failed on one of the biggest, most simple situations he’d ever face.
It’s reported that in 2002, an assistant informed Paterno about Sandusky showering with a child. Even before then, Sandusky retired under odd circumstances, with the former defensive assistant never accepting a coaching job anywhere else. When we ask of Paterno’s legacy, we should really be asking why he shrunk from responsibility.
Paterno seemed like a moralist. He was a fan of Virgil’s “Aeneid,” the epic of classical Rome. In the story, Aeneas survives the Trojan War, travels to Italy and is swept up in further wars, climaxing with the death of his rival Turnus. His actions served a deeper purpose: they helped set in motion the founding of Rome.
Throughout the poem, Aeneas comes off as devoted and loyal, yet bound by fate. As David West put in the introduction to his translation, “It is the story of a human being who knew defeat and dispossession, love and the loss of love, whose life was ruled by his sense of duty to his gods, his people and his family.”
We see a similar figure in Paterno, who was loyal to his people and his program. In 2007, he said to GQ “I could relate to Aeneas so much in the sense that you were fated to do something,” and maybe, like in a classical tragedy, Paterno was. He remained loyal to his former assistant coach, only acting to his legal obligations, reporting it to his superior and not to law officials. He put his program ahead of morals. Fair or not, that shortcoming, and not how clean or successful the program was, will be his legacy.