As recently as Nov. 4, 2011, a memorial service for Joseph Vincent Paterno probably could have been held in a packed Beaver Stadium, the massive football monument on the outskirts of State College, Pa.
There are 107,282 seats in the house that JoePa built, and he had 100 times that many admirers. His legacy was beautifully uncomplicated, his approval rating very near unanimous. He was not just the winningest coach in major-college football history; he was a winner with a documented adherence to rules and an embrace of academia. He was the heroic figure with no overt flaw.
Who didn't respect and admire Joe Paterno?
Then the Jerry Sandusky scandal exploded Nov. 5, 2011. Paterno was fired on a surreal Wednesday night in State College, on Nov. 9. A 61-year career at Penn State was deconstructed and terminated in four days. It seemed impossible, but horrific tales of child abuse, allegedly perpetrated by a former Paterno assistant in the Penn State football facilities, were more powerful than the most powerful man on any college campus in America.
And now the postscript is suddenly conflicted and complicated. A fan of the Greek classics, Paterno surely could recognize a tragedy when he wound up starring in one.
They still could put a huge crowd in Beaver Stadium for a memorial service, even in the dead of winter. But would the school want to, given the horrific stain of child sex-abuse allegations against longtime Paterno aide Sandusky? Do you stage anything that grand for a man you fired because, as he himself admitted, he did not do enough to make sure Sandusky was stopped?
What about the other side of the equation? Would the fiercely loyal Paterno family agree to such a service in concert with the university decision-makers who abruptly dethroned their patriarch, stripping him of a sendoff of any kind from the fans? Would they have any interest in listening to platitudes from people they believe wronged the man even his kids called Joe?
It is a sad situation. A man and a university inextricably linked for decades of good times, yet plunged into the darkest of times in the final act of a six-decade drama.
That creates the current bitter conundrum. If Penn State does too much to honor Paterno, it will be criticized for lionizing a man who employed and in some ways enabled an alleged pedophile. If Penn State does too little to honor Paterno, it will be considered callous by a large portion of a fan base that worships the man and already is furious at his treatment this past fall.
That Paterno died so soon after being fired is no surprise – and not just because he was 85. For years he said that one of the primary motivating forces for working well into his dotage was fear he'd have nothing left to live for. His repeatedly cited cautionary tale was Bear Bryant's death less than four weeks after retiring. And Bryant was not forced from his position at Alabama. In State College on the jarring night of Nov. 9, I had a bad feeling that these obituary columns would be written soon.
The Sandusky scandal did not give Joe Paterno cancer. But it almost certainly affected his will to fight the disease. When the family summoned Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post less than two weeks ago for Joe's final opportunity to set the record straight, the foreboding was palpable. He was dying, and quickly.
Ultimately, the sense is that a lot more has died than an iconic football coach.
Penn State as we know it has died as well.
In some ways, it needed to. The do-nothing university culture that allowed Sandusky to allegedly operate unimpeded certainly needed to die. The Paterno as emperor machinery, built to sustain an image and perpetuate a career beyond its rational boundaries, needed to die. The university's disproportionate dependence on football for its identity needed to die.
But there are some other elements to this obit that are disheartening.
They're burying an ideal alongside Paterno, an ideal most big-time football programs don't even pretend to aspire to anymore. Paterno himself referred to it as "The Grand Experiment" – trying to win big while keeping winning in perspective. Those aspirations usually are mutually exclusive, but JoePa never believed it had to be that way.
They're burying the uniqueness of Penn State football, where it was OK to be old-fashioned. They're burying a place where commitment was unconditional between school and coach. A place that dared to be dull amid the Oregonization of college football. A place where the coach never strong-armed the school for a bigger salary, never hesitated to help the school's educational mission, never sold out to the corner-cutting methods that felled other big names in the profession.
Amid the burials of both good and bad, one thing is sure: We will not see anything like the Paterno-Penn State dynamic ever again. It is a relic of a different era.
It's not just the longevity that never will be replicated: 46 years and 548 games as the head coach, and 61 total years at one school. It's not just the avalanche of on-field achievements: 409 victories, two national championships, five undefeated seasons. It's not just the thousands of players guided, inspired and instructed who have gone on to spread the legend of JoePa like disciples in Biblical times.
It's all of that, in a place willing to let one man coach forever or – until Sandusky – die trying.
Mike Krzyzewski and Duke come close to the Paterno-Penn State dynamic, but they're not the same. The school is less dependent upon basketball for its identity, and Krzyzewski runs a more modern program than Paterno ever did. The setting in Durham is different as well.
The Penn State campus and downtown State College – so isolated amid the hills of central Pennsylvania that they seem untouched by time – reflect their most famous resident. State College is an antiquated village where it always seems like it's 1968 and JoePa could come walking around the corner in his old crew cut at any moment.
That's charming. It's also troubling. Spend enough time there and it becomes easier to conceive how everyone could so completely miss or ignore the monstrous alleged misdeeds of Sandusky. Denial of the real world and its evils is almost tangible in a place they call Happy Valley.
A great many Americans are unmoved by Paterno's passing, having soured on the man for his insufficient response at a time when children were in danger. But a great many of us also have failed when our character was called upon. Like JoePa, we wish we would have done more, and done the right thing more often. Like JoePa, we will take those regrets with us to the grave.
When asked years ago what his epitaph should be, Paterno said, "I hope they write I made Penn State a better place, not just that I was a good football coach." We will write that because it's true. But we cannot leave it at that.
Joe Paterno's life cannot be viewed in black and white anymore. It ends with a sad shroud of gray placed over the prism of our perspective.
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