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Paterno legacy damaged by scandal, but not erased

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports
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Truly great leaders are measured by the lives they reached, the people they motivated and the legacy of their lesson that can extend for years to come, like ripples from a skipped stone across an endless lake.

For Joe Paterno, the impact is incalculable, the people he connected with extending far beyond the players he coached for 62 years at Penn State, the last 46 as head football coach. Paterno always tried to be the giant who walked among the everyman both in the school's greatest moments and, it turns out, in its worst.

Paterno died Sunday at a State College, Pa., hospital, suffering in his final days from lung cancer, broken bones and the fallout of a horrific scandal that not only cost him his job, but also his trademark vigor and a portion of his good name. He was 85 years old.

This is a complicated passing. What was once the most consistent and basic of messages – honor, ethics and education – seemingly lived out as close to its ideal as possible was rocked Nov. 5, 2011, when a grand jury indicted Paterno's former defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, of multiple counts of sexual abuse of children.

Many, including Penn State's Board of Trustees, believed Paterno could have and should have done more to stop Sandusky, especially after allegations of misconduct arose in 2002. Within days Paterno was fired from the program and school to which he'd become synonymous.

Now, a little more than two months later, he's gone for good, a bitter, brutal ending for an American original.

He was the winningest college football coach of all time, compiling a 409-136-3 record. He won national titles in 1982 and 1986 and recorded four other undefeated seasons, including consecutively in 1968 and 1969.

He was a bridge from a simpler time to the cutthroat business college football has become, somehow serving as both a progressive force (he believed in players' rights, a playoff system and welcomed advancements in television) and a stubborn traditionalist (the Penn State uniforms remained basic, he never learned how to send a text message and he still used old-school discipline).

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Yahoo! Sports Radio: Pat Forde on Joe Paterno's legacy]

In 2007, when a group of his players got into a fight at a party, Paterno determined it would best if the entire team had to clean Beaver Stadium after home games. "I think that we need to prove to people that we're not a bunch of hoodlums," he said at the time.

That was Paterno at his best, this singular figure offering simple lessons. He was the rock. He was the constant. He was the conscience. He was JoePa, his nickname suggesting a fatherly quality to not just his players, not just Penn State students who could still find his number listed in the local phone book and not just Nittany Lions football fans.

He was a larger-than-life figure in the small, bucolic town of State College, and if you wanted to draw something good and decent from college football, well, here's where you always could. Don't worry, he'd still be there, as unchanged as ever.

He gave millions of dollars back to the school – the library is named after him and his wife, Sue. He raised millions more at speaking engagements across the country. He encouraged vibrant alumni to take incredible pride in their university, unusual for many state schools in the east. Yet he was still this guy out of Brooklyn, with a thick accent and even thicker glasses. He was humble. He was approachable.

[ Related: Joe Paterno’s coaching timeline ]

It seemed, for anyone who wanted to believe, that he provided perspective amid the circus.

"We're trying to win football games, don't misunderstand that," Paterno told Sports Illustrated's Dan Jenkins in 1968, when he was just 41. "But I don't want it to ruin our lives if we lose. I don't want us ever to become the kind of place where an 8-2 season is a tragedy. Look at that day outside. It's clear, it's beautiful, the leaves are turning, the land is pretty and it's quiet. If losing a game made me miserable, I couldn't enjoy such a day.

"I tell the kids who come here to play, enjoy yourselves. There's so much besides football. Art, history, literature, politics."

That this attitude would come from the guy who would win the most games ever was part of the charm, as if Paterno was running a ruse on everyone chasing him all those crisp autumns. He was playing chess, they were getting check-mated.

No, the full truth never squares with these kinds of narratives. No, he wasn't perfect, he wasn't without fault or selfishness or vanity or difficult moods. He was close enough though. Sometimes, having someone to believe in is enough.

"You know what happens when you're No. 1?" Paterno said more than 40 years ago to Jenkins. "Nobody is happy until you're No. 1 again and that might never happen again."

It would happen again and again and again, actually.

[Joe Paterno: 'I just did what I thought was best' ]

In his final days, that wide-eyed optimist and aw-shucks success story was gone. The Sandusky scandal had sapped what no opponent ever could. He sat earlier this month at his kitchen table with, not coincidentally, Sally Jenkins, the Washington Post columnist and Dan Jenkins' daughter, for his last public words.

He'd lost his hair from chemotherapy. His breath was heavy. He sipped on a soda. "His voice sounded like wind blowing across a field of winter stalks, rattling the husks," Sally Jenkins wrote.

He tried to explain how he hadn't done more to stop Sandusky, how he hadn't followed up thoroughly, how he hadn't pressed university administrators for answers.

"I didn't exactly know how to handle it … I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did. It didn't work out that way."

Some saw no need for him to explain himself again: He'd said much the same thing in a 2011 grand jury appearance. For others, there is no suitable explanation, boys were abused, the mistake too grave for excuses.

This will be forever the battle over Joe Paterno's legacy. A life of soaring impact, of bedrock values, of generations and generations as a symbol of how to live life to its fullest.

[ Photos: Joe Paterno through the years ]

The Sandusky case cracked that for some. Ended it. Not for all, though.

Paterno reached too many, taught too many, inspired too many. And for years and seasons, for decades and generations to come, those that drew from his wisdom will pass it on and on. That will be his most lasting legacy.

No, his worst day can't be forgotten. Neither can all the beautiful ones that surrounded it.

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