Flawed like the rest of us

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 23, 2012 - 11:34 AM

All over, people are paying homage to coaching great Joe Paterno in the wake of his death on Sunday morning. But his legacy will be more complicated than that.

What would young Joe Paterno have said about old Joe Paterno?

What would young Joe, intent on his "Grand Experiment," in which athletic excellence and intellectual rigor entwined as the Greeks intended, have said about JoePa, the legend who waved cheerfully to doting fans after being revealed as an enabler of child rape?

What would idealistic young Joe have said about an octogenarian who clung to his celebrity, who coached games from the press box in his dotage and berated university colleagues who dared discipline or flunk his best players?

Paterno, the legendary coach of the Penn State football team, died on Sunday. He left many legacies. Most of them would have made young Joe proud.

He built a powerhouse in a central Pennsylvania pasture, and helped an entire university grow up around the ever-expanding football stadium.

With his thick lenses and white socks, he looked and coached like an Ivy League English professor who believed he could teach the toss sweep and Chaucer in the same breath.

He died surrounded by reverential family members as Penn Staters gathered around his statue.

He became, to Penn Staters and lovers of sport as it ought to be, a symbol of what college athletics should be everywhere.

I spent part of my youth in central Pennsylvania. There, Penn State was the equivalent of Notre Dame at its glorious peak, and we watched replays of Nittany Lions games on Sunday mornings. A sports fan and avid reader, I idolized the man in the Coke bottle glasses who led men to victories and enlightenment.

By the end of his life, Paterno's accomplishments could fill an encyclopedia. He won 409 games. He donated copious chunks of his salary to improve the Penn State campus. He built buildings and, if his former players are to be believed, he built men.

Ever since his laissez-faire attitude toward Jerry Sandusky's predations had been revealed, Paterno had received moral support from his former players, coaches and peers. All around the country on Sunday, headlines admonished us to remember that his legacy was, as ESPN.com put it, "more than scandal."

That is true, but his legacy should not be separated from the scandal.

Paterno tried to become more than a winning football coach. He tried to make us believe that he cared about the intellectual and spiritual growth of the human beings who passed through Happy Valley. By his own measure, or at least the measure of young Joe, JoePa, the professorial coach with the paternalistic nickname, failed.

Unless you believe that football victories and campus buildings are more important than the health and safety of children, old Joe misplaced his own mission statement.

His passing is tragic in the literary sense: He was a likeable but flawed character who fell from a great height. Perhaps no figure in modern sports has fallen so far, so fast. Certainly no other sports icon has so fully embraced his saintly image while providing a refuge and vehicle for anything so heinous as child abuse.

Many of my peers are choosing to remember young Joe today. They're using the sadness of his death and the enormity of his accomplishments to obscure his crimes of omission. This is sports sentimentality at its worst, and nowhere does sentimentality run amok the way it does in the bastion of school fight songs and mascots.

One man had a chance to preserve, even enhance, young Joe's reputation as a great leader. That man was old Joe. Presented with eyewitness accounts of child abuse in his own locker room, and surrounded by years of rumors about one of his most important assistant coaches, Paterno shrank.

With great power comes great responsibility. Paterno wielded more influence than anyone else in Happy Valley. When he could have used it to protect children, he passed the buck like a cowering bureaucrat.

This is hard to say in the wake of his death, and it is sad to say in the wake of his remarkable life, but young Joe would have been ashamed of old Joe.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is Souhanstrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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    1966 5-5-0 .5001967 8-2-1 .7731968 11-0-0 1.0001969 11-0-0 1.0001970 7-3-0 .7001971 11-1-0 .9171972 10-2-0 .8331973 12-0-0 1.0001974 10-2-0 .8331975 9-3-0 .7501976 7-5-0 .5831977 11-1-0 .9171978 11-1-0 .9171979 8-4-0 .6671980 10-2-0 .8331981 10-2-0 .8331982-x 11-1-0 .9171983 8-4-1 .6541984 6-5-0 .5451985 11-1-0 .9171986-x 12-0-0 1.0001987 8-4-0 .6671988 5-6-0 .4551989 8-3-1 .7081990 9-3-0 .7501991 11-2-0 .8461992 7-5-0 .5831993 10-2-0 .8331994 12-0-0 1.0001995 9-3-0 .7501996...

  • In this photo taken Jan. 12, 2012, former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno gestures as while interviewed at his home in State College, Pa.

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