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Joe Paterno: A Legacy Lost

Joe Paterno could have retired as one of the most revered and respected coaches in the history of the game. Instead, he was fired this week by the university amid a sordid sexual abuse scandal.

The 46-year head college football coaching career of Joe Paterno, all of which took place at Pennsylvania State University, came to an abrupt end this week amid a mushrooming cloud of a sordid sexual abuse scandal involving his assistant coaches, both past and present, as well as the university's Athletic Director and President. 

For the past 15 years Joe Pa, as he is affectionately referred to by the Penn State community, sought desperately and unrelentingly to write the script for the end of his coaching career.

How ironic that by refusing to concede to the frailties of old age and requests by university officials to retire, Joe Paterno's career ended in a forced termination amid circumstances that will likely result in Paterno spending the remainder of his natural life immersed in legal proceedings, both civil and criminal. Let's examine the legacy that could have been and should have been the focus and reflection of a retiree's golden years.

Joe Paterno became the head football coach of Penn State in 1966 after having served as an assistant coach for 16 years beginning in 1950. Think about that for a few minutes. Joe Pa coached at Penn State in some capacity for a total of 61 years. During that period the United States has had 12 presidents and the entire national interstate highway system was constructed. As head football coach of Penn State, Paterno coached 548 games, winning 409 of those games, which is the record for most wins by a head football coach in NCAA division I history.

Penn State won two national championships, had five perfect seasons and won 24 out of the 37 bowl games that it participated. These numbers are staggering and will be the standard for football coaches for years to come. However, it is significant to note that both national championships, all of the perfect seasons and most of the bowl games took place prior to 1995.

But, there was more to the man than just being a football coach. While Joe Paterno was at the helm, Penn State football players were held to a high standard for their academic performances. Paterno called it the “Grand Experiment.” Penn State football players have a consistent record of academic success. As recently as 2008, the four-year graduation rate for Penn State football players was 78 percent, which was considerably above the national average. Paterno was also known for his generous charitable contributions, most notably his contributions in excess of $4 million dollars to the Penn State academic and sports departments.

Joe Paterno was the gold standard of college football coaches. His on the field success was unparalleled, he gave proper emphasis to his player's academic performance and he immersed himself in the university community. He also maintained his residence in a modest house on campus. There was a reason that everyone associated with Penn State University adored the man, loved the man and referred to him as Joe Pa. 

So, what happened?  

How did his career and reputation, which he painstakingly built over a 61-year period, come crashing down so quickly and so decisively?

If we assume that the career of a highly successful head college football lasts approximately 20 years, perhaps 25 years, then the natural course of Joe Paterno's career would have brought him to retirement somewhere around 1991. We know Paterno was a high-energy man so let's give him another five years beyond the average. That takes us to 1996, at which point Joe could have retired as a highly successful 70-year old college football coach.

The sports world is littered with examples of individuals who did not know when to leave the limelight. For those old enough to remember, who can forget the sad visage of Willie Mays, perhaps the best all around baseball player in history, stumbling his way to the end of his playing career which should have ended two or three years earlier than it did?  More recently, Shaquille O'Neill tried to play in the NBA the past two years when his skills clearly had eroded to the point where he would not have been effective playing in a playground pick-up game. The blind pursuit of an extended career is what ultimately cost Joe Paterno his legacy.

During the late 1990s the performance of Penn State football took a downward turn, culminating in a losing record of 26-33 during the period from 2000 to 2004. University officials asked Paterno to retire, prompted by criticism from alumni, fans and the media. He stubbornly and selfishly refused and from that point forward Paterno charted a course in which he would be the sole determinate of when he would retire, relying upon the deep reservoir of good will he had accumulated within the vast Penn State community during his long career. Now in his early 80s, the past few years have been painful and embarrassing to watch as a sports fan. 

There have been two incidents of Joe Paterno being injured on the football field due to his lack of mobility and relegated him to coaching from the press box. Anyone who has heard him speak during the past few years have been struck by the frailty of his voice and his obvious infirmities of age. Yet, despite all of this, he refused to retire, indicating he would step down when he was ready.

Now this bizarre scandal of sexual abuse by one of Paterno's former players and longtime assistant coach has brought his career to an inglorious end, forever tarnishing his legacy. 

If Paterno had retired in 1996 at the age of 70, as he should have, he would be spending his retirement reflecting upon a great career with an impressive combination of success on the field, academic achievements of his players and generous charitable contributions to his university.

Instead, Joe Pa's legacy has been diminished amidst a scandal during which he fell far short of his own moral standards, compromised the integrity of his beloved university and forced him to enter a world of retirement most likely filled with civil and criminal legal proceedings rather than endless days with his grandchildren.

It is a very sad end indeed.

Tim O'Neil is the Administrative Staff Attorney and Assistant Town Attorney for the town of Mancheser. He provides legal services for the town’s many departments as well as serving as the Assistant Town Attorney. He's also a HUGE sports fan.

Anita November 13, 2011 at 11:06 AM
Mr. Sullivan, the people who claim their educations in these comments are not doing so out of arrogance or exclusivity but rather our of empathy and identifying. Your comments are relevant just as the college-educated ones are.
John Tobias November 13, 2011 at 11:20 AM
Anita, That's exactly what my intent was.Thank you for clarifying that point. Furthermore, after reading the entire Grand Jury report, had the Athletic Director, VP, and President done their jobs properly, this would have been stopped many years ago. Respectfully, John Tobias
Anita November 13, 2011 at 11:52 PM
You're welcome, John. I've been away from Penn State a long time, but I remember that even during the turbulent late '60s, she always held her shoulders high and dealt with controversy in a level-headed, mature fashion. I graduated wearing a black arm band for the Kent State victims, but even then, the campus had a down-to-earth, tranquil feel. No protests, no drugs, and no turmoil. I graduated summa cum laude, and because of Penn State, I had a thorough and excellent preparation for a professional life. I know Joe and Jerry and am deeply saddened for their involvement in this fiasco. I ache for the victims.
S10 November 15, 2011 at 05:58 PM
John Tobias I agree with you. Especially during the time period when one of the assistant coaches was the actual person to accidently witness the crime. It has been publicised that AN appropriate coarse of action was for Mr.Paterno to notify the next in the chain of command. He could have notified police but he was not required to do so. Please remember even at the time that an action was witnessed by the assistant coach Mr.Paterno was a Senior Citizen. Even in his youth he was a brainy Ivy Leaguer, much smaller than Mr.Sandusky who allegidly commited the crimes. This original artical states that there were more than one coach involved but from all other accounts it was only this one individual who hurt those children. Children were not even supposed to be on campus without supervision from their parents/guardians as Penn State is a secondary institution with students being high school graduates typically of 17-18 years of age and up. Mr. Paterno DID report the complaint from as assistant coach to his Direct Supervisor for proper investigation of the witnesses report which was and I believe still is proper protocal. I agree, it was disgraceful for Mr.Paterno to have been fired and smeered by the media so badly after he gave so much to the university and to the thousand of students who walked through the doors of Penn State.
S10 November 15, 2011 at 06:23 PM
The University, I hope will realise that they acted in haste and will reverse their decision to terminate JoPa. Please allow this good man to retire in dignity. It was my understanding that JoPa intended to retire years ago. Word had it that after his second Bowl game victory in 1987 he was considering it but that the University pleaded for him to stay and continue on with his good work. From what I have heard Mr.Paterno knew nothing except hearsay (sp?) / speculation. Mr. Paterno in his capacity under his job description had very little more that he could have done except to refer the situation to the next level the administrators who had the ability by their job descriptions to discipline and hire/fire employees. From what I have read during this entire time period only two witnesses came forward the Assistant Coach and possibly a janitor. What about the girls who were abused by the Coaches here in Southington, CT for about the same length of time throughout the 1980's and 90's? What happened to those coaches? That was more of what I would regard as a 'scandel'. I heard that they were allowed to retire with teachers pensions. What happened to all of the Southington school administrators that teachers had reported the abuse to? I didn't see that anyone ever was fired? A female teacher told me that she reported this abuse to the Administration for numerous times but they turned a blind eye because the girls sports teams were winning for our town.

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