|While Joe Paterno reached a record 409 wins, victories don't always define a man. (AP)|
Can a great man's life be judged by its final two months?
Joe Paterno died Sunday morning, and that central question remains unanswered. An American legend passed and his legacy will be defined, for many, by how those final months played out -- in controversy, in sadness, in disgrace.
Is that how he should be remembered?
"It's so crazy that this one [freakin'] pervert son of a bitch can bring down a university."
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Paul Levine is speaking not about Paterno, but about Jerry Sandusky, whose alleged actions are central to the narrative but certainly not the end of it. Levine met Paterno in the 1960s as sports editor and eventually editor of the student Daily Collegian.
It is relationship that didn't end with graduation. Levine fondly recalls a note he received from Paterno as a first-year law student: "Keep your goals set high."
"I viewed him then," said Levine, now an accomplished author and screenwriter, "as a towering figure."
The towering figure -- arguably one of the greats in American history -- leaves a complicated legacy. Coach, mentor, educator, philanthropist, king of Happy Valley, which is where the real discussion diverges.
"He has the eyes of an eagle. He could see through trees, around corners, through people. If you were doing something wrong, you couldn't hide."
Those words were attributed to former Penn State All-American Dave Joyner (1969-71) in the book Quotable Joe published in 2000. They look back more than 40 years ago. They suggest how long Paterno was king of a humble central Pennsylvania hamlet. It also suggests all the good and bad connotations that accompany those words.
If Paterno had the eyes of an eagle, could see around corners -- 40 years ago -- how could he not have an inkling of the alleged actions of one of his most trusted lieutenants (Sandusky)? Short of that, how could he not comprehend what Mike McQueary reportedly told him about Sandusky allegedly sexually assaulting a boy in 2002?
In Sally Jenkins' fine Washington Post column of last week, Paterno said he "never heard of rape and a man." Whether you believe him or not, how sad that the passage stands as some of his final words.
They say absolute power corrupts absolutely. But to suggest power had corrupted Paterno may be too insensitive on this day. That's one of the issues. Any obituary has to account prominently for the victims and their shattered lives. Any obituary of the great coach should not include the number "409" today, at least not up high in the copy. That all-time victories number hardly defines the man, if it ever did.
"I was there when Woody Hayes punched the guy in the Gator Bowl," said Glen Mason, who was an Ohio State assistant that night in 1978. "When all is said and done, it is a chapter in the book -- it's not the book."
That's why it's a complicated heritage. A man who could have been president of the NCAA -- hell, he could have been president of the country -- will no doubt also be central to court dealings and civil suits in months and years to come.
Paterno will also be the mentor for Mason and scores of others. At Nike outings in Arizona, the majority of coaches would play golf. Mason would grab a legal pad, head out to the hotel pool and pick the brain of a giant.
"I was always amazed he would give me the answer with so much common sense, I would almost be embarrassed I asked the question," Mason said.
In 1997, Mason's Minnesota team led No. 2 Penn State in Happy Valley 15-3 in the fourth quarter. A questionable officiating call led to a comeback that allowed the Nittany Lions to win 16-15.
"I'll never forget he grabbed my hand and said, 'You beat me today. You won this game today. I'd like to talk to your team,'" Mason said. "He came to our locker room and told us the same thing, 'You guys outcoached us, outplayed us. You got kicked in the stomach, but you'll come back strong.' "
Two years later, Minnesota won 24-23 at Beaver Stadium.
"I looked at him afterward," Mason said, "To this day, I believe there was a tear in his eye for his team and a smile on his face for my team."
"I'm really proud of you," JoePa had said.
Saturday night, Mason's wife pulled out some old pictures of the two friends. Mason paused at the inscription on one: Glen, a tough guy to beat, but an easy guy to love -- Joe Paterno.
America's John Wayne, tough-guy coach using the word "love." That's why it's so hard to sort things out today. It is ingrained in the American psyche to worship coach/heroes. Lombardi, Auerbach, Bowden, Robinson. Maybe that's our fault for going all in on mere humans. Maybe Paterno's failings will teach us to hold back.
Should any coach be allowed to become a towering hero on any campus?
Joe told us himself in Quotable Joe: "Football is not the most important thing in this country. If football suddenly disappeared from the scene tomorrow, we would never miss it."
There are a handful of coaches who have defined a university. Rockne, Bowden, Bryant … the list is extremely short. That's an inspiration as well as a problem. We can still love the accomplishments, love the men, but hold back with natural skepticism that perhaps no man deserves that much adoration.
That's why it's so complicated today, tremendously complicated. Before early November, Paterno's biggest fault was his stubbornness. His offense changed grudgingly. His uniforms and wardrobe, never. The man flashed across the screen Sunday recalling having once told Richard Nixon to "shove it" when the White House called offering an honor. Who could blame him? The pollsters probably screwed Paterno's teams more than they rewarded them. Maybe that's because he wasn't flashy enough.
Former Penn State president Graham Spanier and former AD Tim Curley showed up on his doorstep in 2005 to humbly suggest it might be time to retire. He told them to get lost like they were neighborhoods kids trampling all over his manicured lawn.
Paterno gave back. He was friends with the game's coaching nouveau riche but never made close to $4 million a year, although he could have commanded much more. Instead, he donated at least that much to Penn State.
JoePa remained stubborn until the end. He tried to dictate the terms of his own departure. The Penn State trustees cannot be blamed for sending a messenger to his house the night he was fired on Nov. 9. There would have been more disgrace, more media circus if trustees had trudged to his house to give him the message in person.
By that time, the Big Ten had taken Paterno's name off its conference championship trophy. McQueary was removed from the sidelines for the Nebraska game because of "multiple threats." Students rioted when news broke that Paterno had been fired.
Yes, that will be part of this story too.
On these days there is a tendency to embellish, to romanticize. You heard talk that Joe died of a broken heart or had lost his will to live. There are startlingly similar comparisons to Bear Bryant. Alabama's great coach died of a massive heart attack a month after he retired. Joe had cancer and a broken pelvis. He was 85 years old.
Even legends are mortal.
Maybe that's the lesson today. Joe's legacy is tangled up in moral obligations. Paterno met the legal basics for the state of Pennsylvania but possibly failed his fellow man. After 61 years at one school, should the final two months define a man?
"It's something that's hard to defend," Mason said. "It's easy to say it tainted a great, great story and legacy. That scandal is what it is. Whatever Joe's involvement was and poor decisions that he made, and way Penn State handled it, that will be there forever.
"I am confident," Mason said, again recalling Woody Hayes, "it will be a chapter in the book, not the whole book."
Levine had gotten off the phone with Jay Paterno late Saturday night. No matter what you think of the son, he has represented that legacy, the family and his father well in these trying times. It was Jay who spoke to reporters in those early, frantic days, provided updates on Twitter. He kept his composure when it would have been easy to lose it.
"He's taken on a huge burden," Levine said from Los Angeles. "I think he's going to make it his life's purpose to rehabilitate his father's reputation throughout the country."
Maybe Joe didn't have to speak anymore. After 85 years, all the games have been won. Everything's been said. Thumbing through Quotable Joe on this day, all you have to turn is turn to page 85 for what turns out to be one the great coach's defining comments.
"I always remember what Winston Churchill once said: 'Success is never final, failure never fatal.' "