Senior College Football Columnist

The question: How will Paterno's eventual exit be remembered?


The allegations against Jerry Sandusky may forever stain Joe Paterno's Penn State legacy. (AP)  
The allegations against Jerry Sandusky may forever stain Joe Paterno's Penn State legacy. (AP)  

The question is, will there be balloons, a celebration, a coaching lifetime honored at Penn State?

That's when we will know about Joe Paterno -- when he leaves, whatever form that takes. Even before the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke, no one would have been surprised if this was JoePa's last season. We know the end is near. The man is 84, has been limited to the press box and might never see the sideline again. Such are the effects of age and his physical ailments.

Penn State is 8-1, with the best record in the Big Ten. Few would be surprised if the old man bowed up one more time and got to another Rose Bowl, clunky offense and all. There were those of us suggesting his time had come 15 years ago. His longevity amazes.

But how do you salute those five decades of service now? When it ends, do you even celebrate a head-coaching career now in its 45th year?

That's how we will know about the legacy of Joseph Vincent Paterno. When he leaves. They will tell us -- the fans, the peers, his players, the residents of State College, Pa. They will let us know if a long, distinguished coaching career will be remembered just for coaching football.

They will tell us if years of righteousness and dedication will be shoved off to a corner like an ugly house plant at a dinner party. Will the centerpiece be the 800-pound elephant in the room that is currently being scrutinized by the state of Pennsylvania's highest-ranking law enforcement arm?

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This is not a judgment, merely on observation. There are many days to go and many layers to peel away in the Sandusky scandal. To this point, Paterno has committed no crime by not going directly to police after a graduate assistant told the coach he witnessed an alleged sexual assault by Sandusky nine years ago.

Pennsylvania state police commissioner Frank Noonan reiterated that fact Monday but added, "Somebody has to question about what I would consider the moral requirements for a human being that knows of sexual things that are taking place with a child."

Paterno has said he will testify against his former defensive coordinator.

JoePa might be guilty of nothing more than being on the job when the child abuse scandal broke. But in this world, that may be enough. Paterno could walk away after this season. But can he walk away with his reputation as well?

The horrific developments of the past few days don't even have to be mentioned in an official retirement press release. But what information isn't included will speak louder than the words in print.

Even Joe has to be reevaluating now: How will he be remembered?

This could well be his Woody Hayes moment, without the punch. The moment when a career full of achievement is smudged by what has to be in the second paragraph now of any retrospective of the man's career.

Joe was in charge when it allegedly happened.

That's why this story is so troubling. The first -- and perhaps only -- concern should be about the youths who were irreparably harmed. But there are also the alleged actions of a 67-year-old former assistant who may take down his iconic boss and the good name of the university he once worked for.

"I sort of out-of-hand reject any notion that Joe was involved in any sort of way, was part of any conspiracy," one influential alum said.

A lot of folks agree with Paul Levine, a man who loves his university and Joe. He is a noted author and screenwriter whose Lassiter series of crime thrillers is based on fictional walk-on Penn State linebacker-turned-lawyer Jake Lassiter. Levine, class of '69, was on the phone Monday with other Penn State alums in the Hollywood community buzzing about the stain on their school.

"It also seems they're so ill-equipped at Penn State to deal with something of such a seedy nature," Levine said. "I've always thought of Penn State as Brigadoon . It's almost like being in love. People whistle as they skip through the flower fields."

That's why this scandal hurts down to anyone's core. Innocence has been lost in a lot of places.

We know that at the moment Paterno "is not a target," according to Pennsylvania attorney general Linda Kelly. Ethically? Kelly spoke around the issue Monday during a press conference.

"Those of us who have been in the law know there is a difference between moral and legal guilt," she said. "Right now we're going to comment on legal guilt."

Noonan added if, "You're a football coach or a university president or a guy sweeping the building, I think you have a moral responsibility to call us."

Some Penn State students have spoken. There was a Monday report that Sandusky last week was working out in the same football facility where he allegedly assaulted minors for years. Sandusky had been banned from bringing children to the Penn State facility by the school.

Great head coaches in the past have had their careers ended abruptly but there were clear reasons. Barry Switzer was in charge of an out-of-control Oklahoma program in the late 1980s. When the NCAA began investigating, it was time for him to go. Bobby Bowden didn't win enough and suffered an ugly departure from Florida State.

But Paterno is still winning, big. There is no one pushing him out the door for running the program into the ground.

That's why when it does come -- retirement or worse -- there will be a giant hole in history where a legend used to be.

A hole because football matters so little now.

"This is not a case about football, not about universities," Kelly said. "This is about children who had their innocence stolen from them."

The attorney general spent a large portion of her press conference asking for other victims to come forward. Meanwhile, in five days, Nebraska plays Paterno's team in a key Big Ten game. The fans' reaction both in and outside the stadium will trump anything happening on the field.

"Success is perishable and out of your control," Paterno tells Jake Lassiter in one of Levine's books. "It's how other people judge you based on material things, not true accomplishment."

Those words are straight out of a work of fiction. They are also words of truth that apply to Paterno and his career now more than ever.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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