Commentary: Paterno's legacy isn't one of shame

Students gather around the statue of Joe Paterno at Beaver Stadium on Nov. 9, 2011, in State College, Pa.
Students gather around the statue of Joe Paterno at Beaver Stadium on Nov. 9, 2011, in State College, Pa. David Swanson/Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT

For Jerry Sandusky, accused child molester, a day in court still awaits.

But for Joe Paterno, a judgment of another sort came last Sunday.

And who are we to assume we know exactly how that went?

Another coach from another sport once made the cynical observation that we are all destined to be remembered not for all the good things we've done, but for the very worst.

I won't argue that. We live in an age where, for once, it is not good to be the king.

And make no mistake, Joe Paterno, who died last Sunday at age 85, was ruler of his domain. King of what used to be called "Happy Valley."

As head football coach of Penn State for 46 years, Paterno molded lives. He watched timid freshmen grow into doctors, lawyers and NFL football players.

He became not only a symbol of the university's rise to national prominence, but an icon of college football. Paterno's voice mattered, whether it was tweaking the nose of the NCAA and its rules or decrying the inadequacies of the BCS.

But therein was the problem. Where was that voice when it most needed to be heard? Where was that leadership when he saw that Sandusky was still allowed to roam the Penn State campus?

Paterno would have been 74 when, in 2002, then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary reported seeing Sandusky in the shower, sodomizing a 10-year-old boy.

Educators are supposed to know what to do when they encounter any evidence or suspicion that a child is being abused. Paterno was a football coach, but a case could easily have been made that he was the most powerful educator in the state of Pennsylvania.

Paterno's passing will not wash away the sins of his silence in the Sandusky affair. But be careful who you demonize in this case.

His weak defense of his inactions was regrettable. This was an 85-year-old grandfather, however, being asked to recall something that happened nine years ago.

That's not an excuse, of course. The victims will remember what Sandusky did forever. But I have trouble condemning Paterno, 85 and stricken with what proved to be terminal cancer, for his final explanations.

Throughout the ordeal, one thing did ring with clarity. For every angry newspaper or Internet column that was written, calling for Paterno's head, there seemed to be a public response from someone whose life he had touched in a profound and positive way.

The statue of Paterno on the Penn State campus isn't there only because he won 409 football games.

Thus, his death prompts an uncomfortable eulogy. Sadness. Anger. Mourning. Regret.

The timing was both understandable and eerie.

On a cold December night in Memphis in 1982, I remember shivering in a tent as Paul "Bear" Bryant gave his final postgame press conference as Alabama head coach. He had taken a 7-4 football team with a three-game losing streak (including a loss to Southern Miss) into that Liberty Bowl, and Bryant had resigned because, he said, the Tide "needed a better coach."

Four weeks later, I was sitting in a Super Bowl hotel room in Los Angeles when I heard that Bryant, at age 69, had died.

Whatever passion that Joe Paterno, 85 and diagnosed with cancer, felt about coaching Penn State football had to have waned in the humiliation of the accusations and his own unceremonious firing.

His death fills his supporters with sadness, no doubt, but probably not with surprise.

Many people may have washed their hands of Paterno two months ago, when reports of the Sandusky scandal were first revealed. Some even publicly hoped that the 85-year-old grandfather of 17 would be sent to jail.

But Paterno faced a more immediate judgment day, as it turned out.

Can't we let that Judge decide?

As winning football coaches go, the record book shows that there have been none better than JoePa.

Listen to his former players. Listen to the Penn State alums who proudly attended during his 46 seasons. Listen to the words of his peers in the coaching profession.

We live in cynical times, but I hope one of those old coaches is wrong -- the one that said we're destined to be remembered only for the worst thing we've done.

As his obituaries are awkwardly being written, the sad final chapter of Joe Paterno should not overshadow the breadth and depth of a coaching career that spanned seven decades.

God rest his soul.