As the mourners pay respect to Joe Paterno, it becomes increasingly clear just how badly he was served in his final years.
Paterno had enough left in his final weeks to understand that he was going to be judged as a public figure who did not do enough when warned about the possibility of male rape on his watch.
“I didn’t know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was,” he said. “So 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.”
That’s what Paterno told Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post. The most important person in the state of Pennsylvania lived inside a castle, behind barricades and moats formed in the name of winning a national football championship.
This is what college football is all about – win at all costs, including isolation and ignorance. Take a look at an excellent article, “How Big-Time Sports Ate College Life,” by Laura Pappano, in the New York Times education supplement of Jan. 20. It asks the question, how did it get to be like this?
But Joe Paterno’s legacy should endure. The entire Penn State community accepted Paterno’s public reputation and his millions in donations to the educational and spiritual side of Penn State. But the mob let him down by not allowing even a court jester to speak some truths to him.
How alone he was. This was more than the King Lear paranoia of a coach who will not be shoved into retirement.
In 2004, the president and the athletic director of Penn State shuffled up to Paterno’s house and suggested it was time for him to retire. Paterno gave them the bum’s rush. Of course he did. By that time, it was already too late to create a dialogue between an aging coach and anybody he respected.
He was on his own, living by his wits, against anybody who would challenge him – because in his street-smart Brooklyn way, he knew they had only one thing on their minds, and that was winning more football games than the powerhouses in Ohio and Alabama and Florida. That’s all they cared about. He was there to be No. 1. So he told them to get lost.
In his press conferences in later years, he sounded like any cranky old man shouting at the kids to keep off his lawn. On that November night after his job was taken away from him, he sounded disjointed, telling the students to go home and study but he still did not seem to understand how serious, how ugly, this all was.
His players are now suggesting he died of a broken heart. This is classic football – us against them. We don’t have access to Paterno’s medical history in recent years (when he seemed to be a magnet for players running out of bounds), but he was diagnosed for lung cancer days after being publicly caught up in the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
Was he well served by his family, or did they all try to preserve his position against the hordes who resented every rare loss? Was he well served by his university, which allowed him to retreat deeper into the castle?
Above all, they wanted Penn State to be No. 1. And in the end, he became the Wizard of Oz, behind the trappings.
I’d rather remember the vital, earthy, skeptical, educated guy with the Brooklyn rasp, who built a good thing in the Nittany Valley – until the masses did him no favors by making him king.
Had a wonderful time on the #NYTReadalong Sunday with Sree Sreenivasan and Neil Parekh, talking about the Super Bowl and the great paper where I used to work. Here’s the link to my fun time. Thanks to all the nice people who sent messages while I was babbling. The Readalong is Sunday, 8:30-10:15 AM Eastern, and the link is available after that:
has filed an interview with, of all people, me.
It's on his blog. (Just past photo of rat!) My thanks for his interest. GV
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see: