On January 22, 2012, the Penn State community lost the man who had been the figurehead and the cornerstone of the university. Joseph Vincent Paterno died at the age of 85 due to complications from lung cancer. Paterno’s legacy will probably be debated until the end of time. After 60 years of excellent service to the school, his final year was marred by scandal.
Before the news in November of 2011 that former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was being charged for heinous crimes against children, Paterno had perhaps the cleanest record in all of sports. Penn State, under the leadership of Paterno, was looked at nationally as one of the best examples of excellence in college athletics, with hardly a mention over his tenure of NCAA infractions.
The Brooklyn native was a classic coach, one who demanded the best from his players both on and off the field. Under Paterno, Penn State regularly ranked among the top schools in regards to graduating football players. During his time at Penn State, he also fielded nationally- competitive teams and brought two National Championships and developed the football program into a national powerhouse, brining in countless funds for Penn State.
Paterno himself donated millions of dollars to the school, the library built with his funds still bears his name on campus.
Coach Paterno received countless awards for his achievements on and off the football field. In 2006 he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and was easily considered one of the best coaches ever in the game. Before the Sandusky scandal, Paterno was immortalized at Penn State. There was a statue of him outside of Beaver Stadium. No one could think of Penn State without thinking of Paterno’s name.
However, that fateful November in 2011, right or wrong, changed his legacy forever.
Things were rolling well for the Nittany Lions during the 2011 season. They were 8-1 and undefeated in the Big Ten Conference. The eighth victory of the season, a hard-fought 10-7 victory in tough weather conditions against Illinois was extra special. That win gave Paterno 409 for his career, making him the winningest coach in college football history.
The sad irony of that situation is the fact that in the following week, after the Nittany Lions had a bye, the news about Sandusky broke. It didn’t seem like much to many people at first, just a quick news blurb, but it suddenly erupted enough for the media to descend on the tiny town of State College. Just a few days later, Paterno was abruptly relieved of his duties as coach when the Penn State Board of Trustees phoned him and told him the news.
The game that gave him perhaps his biggest accomplishment turned out to be his last.
Aside from tarnishing his legacy and vacating wins, the situation damaged the football program due to NCAA sanctions that were levied after the Freeh Report was released. The NCAA did not hold its own investigation.
Sure, the situation at Penn State with Sandusky could have been handled better, Paterno should have had more follow-up. But is Paterno really the villain that so many now make him out to be? Doubtful. The crimes against the victims were terrible, and that’s why the criminal who committed them will now be behind bars for the rest of his life. Paterno’s legacy should take a bit of a hit for how everything was handled, but not to the extent that it has.
While the situation with Sandusky wasn’t handled correctly by Paterno or Penn State, he knee-jerk reaction by both Penn State and the NCAA to tarnish and try to erase the legacy of Paterno was also wrong. Pretending that wins never happened and indirectly punishing all of the student-athletes who played their hearts out on the field and now punishing current players is a bit of a crime in itself.
There is probably no right or wrong answer now when it comes to Paterno, as no resolution will ever satisfy everyone. No matter how you feel, there’s no denying his contributions to Penn State and the countless guys who played for him. Raising his statue again and restoring the wins will make most of those associated with Penn State happy, but will anger many across the nation.
So for now, everyone is left to make their own opinion about Paterno’s legacy.
Follow VBR Lead Editor Barry Leonard Jr. on Twitter