STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Until this week, the final home game of the Joe Paterno Era at Penn State would have been one of the biggest celebrations college football had ever seen.
Old players would have returned by the hundreds. Tributes would have poured forth from across the spectrum of sports, as well as bon mots from political and entertainment figures. (A statement from President Barack Obama would have been unsurprising.) The school would have elaborately planned as nice a ceremony as Paterno would have tolerated.
It would have been a nationwide salute to a man leaving the game as few coaches do anymore – without significant demerit of any kind in a 46-year body of work. He would have gone into the history books as arguably the greatest of them all: a huge winner and a man of unassailable character.
Instead, the Paterno Era will end in haste and amid heartache. His Wednesday retirement announcement comes just three days before the Nittany Lions' last home game of 2011 and just five wrenching days after former longtime assistant Jerry Sandusky was arrested on child-molestation charges that have stained the once-unblemished Paterno legacy.
It will end after a surreal week in which the media camped on the coach's lawn, and then students rallied on that lawn. It will end with what had been an adoring nation now strongly conflicted about how to regard this 84-year-old coaching giant.
The retirement announcement was not greeted with a unanimous cascade of applause. It was greeted with outrage from those who believe the winningest coach in the history of the game should not coach another minute, not after his failure to report a 2002 alleged child rape by Sandusky in the Penn State football building to law enforcement.
And, truth be told, it was greeted with some uncertainty as well. The fact that Paterno issued the statement himself, not the university, leaves you to wonder whether the school might have other ideas. A Wednesday night meeting of the Penn State Board of Trustees could conceivably spawn a movement to oust Paterno immediately.
So a career unlike any other in college football history does not end well. Certainly not as well as it could have.
But that's the risk you run when you try to stay forever. The longer you coach, the greater the opportunity for something to go wrong.
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And something did go very wrong in State College. There is intense debate about Paterno's culpability in the failure of good men to do anything to stop a monster in their midst – the people here seem to be digging in more strongly every day in defense of their hero, while those outside the Happy Valley cocoon grow angrier every day that he remains on the job. But what cannot be debated is the human tragedy that happened on his watch, in his building, at the hands of a longtime trusted assistant.
If a graceful exit by a coaching icon seems less common all the time, that's probably because it is. Woody Hayes, Bob Knight – now Joe Paterno. All left their dream jobs under pressure and under a career-obscuring cloud.
Perhaps not coincidentally, all had consolidated a remarkable amount of power in their positions. They had grown so big and powerful that they did as they pleased and basically answered to no one.
As the years went by, Paterno wired Penn State with his people: athletic director Tim Curley played for him at the school; son Jay Paterno assumed a key position on the coaching staff; media liaison Guido D'Elia worked directly with Paterno, circumventing school media relations director Jeff Nelson; several members of the Board of Trustees are friends of the coach. It became rather clear that none of these people could tell Paterno what to do. There were no checks and balances in the Penn State football program, which is usually the way powerful coaches want it.
Is it any wonder that when administrators approached Paterno urging retirement earlier this decade, he simply blew them off and kept coaching? The fact that he's still coaching at this age, after a string of infirmities, is prima facie evidence of the enabling done by those around him. Taking care of the coach – and the program's pristine image – seems to have become the guiding force at Penn State. In talking Tuesday to someone close to the Paterno family, it seems that JoePa's support system attended to everything in an effort to allow him to simply coach football. The inference was that Paterno existed in something of a coaching bubble, reducing everything else in and around the program to low-level background noise.
It's impossible to know right now whether that support system failed him when it came to the Sandusky scandal, but it certainly appears to have been incapable of helping him do everything possible to stop it.
After the announcement Wednesday morning, it was eerily quiet around massive Beaver Stadium – the 107,282-seat house that Joe built. Some students were in their tents at Paternoville, waiting in line for good seats for the Saturday showdown with Nebraska – a game that loomed large last week, then became trivial this week, and now will mark the end of an unparalleled era.
Near the tents was the statue of Paterno in iconic dress: glasses, rolled-up pants and tie. On the wall behind the statue it reads:
Joseph Vincent Paterno
They have a year-by-year list of every game he's coached at Penn State, starting in 1966. They end in 2009. Why? They ran out of wall for a career that once seemed literally limitless. There also is a quote on the wall from Paterno: "They ask me what I'd like written about me when I'm gone, I hope they write I made Penn State a better place, not just that I was a good football coach."
With his departure now a defined date, Paterno has lost control of his own narrative. The coaching epitaph is more complicated now, and less laudatory. Many people have been hurt far worse in this sordid ordeal, but even the great Joe Paterno has paid a price with the damage to his legacy.