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What will Joe Paterno be best remembered for?


When Joe Paterno was dismissed from Penn State University last November in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal, I had a eerie feeling. Not only did I think Paterno would never recover from this chain of events, I didn’t think he’d live to see another year.

When Joe Paterno died Sunday, the Associated Press stated the cause of death was a result of complications from lung cancer, but it’s no secret that several other factors contributed to an earlier demise for Paterno than anyone could have anticipated.   Joe Paterno photo: myhero.com

If all of this seems a little surreal to you, you are not alone. Most of us are still trying to soak in what was uncovered last November on Penn State’s campus let alone the fact that the Paterno, whom just last week had supporters such as Franco Harris demanding the board at Penn State to reinstate him for the first four games of the 2012 football season, is gone. Just like that.

The last 11 weeks of Joe Paterno’s life were as celebratory, turbulent, dramatic, and life-altering than perhaps any sports figure who has ever lived. In late October 2011, Paterno became the winningest coach in Division 1 college football history. It would be the last win of his 46-year coaching career at Penn State.

In the following week, the Sandusky allegations were brought to the surface, and Paterno soon announced he would retire at the end of the season in wake of the scandal. The Penn State board however, decided they could not wait another few weeks and relieved him of his coaching duties later that day. A week later, Paterno’s son Scott revealed that his father had a treatable form of lung cancer.  Two months later, he passed away. The last few months regarding Joe Paterno is a lot to soak in for a 34-year old let alone an 85 year-old man who is at the center of it all.

Paterno was part of Penn State for 61 years. He made Penn State the brand name that it (still?) is today. His philanthropic efforts at the school were matched by his on-field accomplishments, where his track record speaks for itself: Two National Championships, 24 bowl wins, and a countless legion of admirers who he helped along the way.

I’m not here to discuss whether Joe Paterno should have done more leading up to the Sandusky debacle. And this isn’t one of those “Remember all the good Paterno did for Penn State and not just for the last several months of his life” editorials, either. Keep in mind there were dozens of children who are now young adults who will never get their childhood back. That’s pretty tough to lose sight of. Was Paterno the main culprit here? Far from it. There were also other faculty members at the school aware of Sandusky's acts who kept their jobs. Prior to his death however, he went on record saying he wished he had done more in regards to the alleged sexual assault.

Maybe it was ignorance, maybe it was fear of Penn State’s reputation being damaged. Either way, it will be very interesting to observe how Paterno’s legacy will be viewed as time passes. Will the man who did so much for Penn State University be more remembered for the one thing he didn’t do? And is that fair? Will this opinion change over time? Will Joe Paterno be forgiven in death by those who couldn’t forgive him while he was alive?

What most can agree with is that Joe Paterno’s passing is a sad final chapter for someone once so revered and respected, but spent his last days having his name associated with the biggest scandal in college football history, in addition to a once great legacy in serious doubt.


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Contact Joe Vallee at jvallee@philly2philly.com                                                                                                 

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