On Jan. 22, 2012, Joe Paterno died at 85 of lung cancer in State College, Penn., his kingdom for the last 45 years. After assuming head coaching duties at Penn State in 1966, Paterno went on to build a legend of undefeated seasons, national championships and 409 wins — the most of any major college football coach in history — before being ousted from the university amid college football’s biggest scandal of the year.
Obviously, Paterno will leave behind a legacy of much more than khaki pants, white socks and Coke bottle glasses. He served as the icon of the Nittany Lion football program, taking the team to 37 bowl games and winning two national championships. And then, Sandusky happened.
Sandusky joined Paterno's staff as an assistant coach in 1969. In 1977, he founded The Second Mile, an organization designed to help troubled adolescent boys. In 1998, Sandusky was investigated for child abuse, but no charges were filed. Sandusky then retired as Penn State defensive coordinator in 1999, but remained on campus as a coach emeritus — he had an office in and access to Penn State's athletic facilities. In 2002, then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary allegedly witnessed Sandusky sodomizing a young boy in the Penn State locker room showers. McQueary allegedly told Paterno the next day, who then told director of athletics Tim Curley.
The truth is this, none of us know for sure what happened in that locker room Mike McQueary stumbled into almost 10 years ago. None of us know what happened between Sandusky and the underage boy, and none of us know exactly what Paterno was told about whatever did happen. None of us know what Curley, senior vice president Gary Schultz or president Graham Spanier were told about the incident. Something happened in that locker room, but no one knows what.
But that doesn’t stop us from speculating, judging and criticizing: Sandusky’s disgusting, McQueary’s a liar, Paterno didn’t do enough, Spanier turned a blind eye because he valued a successful football program, Paterno did exactly what he was supposed to, McQueary should have tried harder, Sandusky’s innocent.
I won’t tell you which I believe, because it doesn’t matter. No matter what you think happened — or didn’t happen — the truth is that the Sandusky scandal tainted JoePa’s legacy as soon as it broke. And now that Paterno has passed, his legacy is suddenly up for judgment.
Paterno was without a doubt the most constant figure in college football. It’s expected that players come and go as they cross NFL draft or graduation stages, but even coaching icons — think Pete Carroll at USC — leave schools for new opportunities. Paterno never did (until he was forced to) and that’s evidence of a trait we can all admire: loyalty.
Another one of JoePa’s decisions all of us at Northwestern can praise: Paterno did not recruit Dan Persa. In 2007, Penn State was not looking for a quarterback, and they certainly weren’t looking for a quarterback who stood barely six feet tall, even if he was a Pennsylvania native who could run and pass. Like Paterno said, Penn State’s loss is our gain.
At the end of the day, Joe Paterno was a man who dedicated his life to football. It’s been widely reported these last few days that Paterno turned down a career in law to coach football, and it’s been widely reported that his father’s request was that his son “make an impact.”
It’s safe to say JoePa obeyed his father. He stayed with the same program for more than 40 years while winning games, championships and the hearts of many. Even though the Nittany Lions are a Big Ten foe, and even though he earned his 400th win against Northwestern, Paterno was a man even our beloved Coach Fitz admired and respected.
Yes, the Sandusky scandal should be considered in Paterno’s legacy — but not his football legacy. Whether or not you agree with Paterno’s moral actions should not affect your recognition of his impact on college football. Paterno stood for loyalty, success, dedication and respect on the football field, and he will be missed.