Thoughts on the passing of college football legend Joe Paterno

storapse@aol.comJanuary 26, 2012 

When I heard that Joe Paterno had died Sunday I wondered how his memory would be treated by members of the media.

I've read many stories and columns by sports writers on the Internet the last few days and, in my view, they have been generally fair.

It has been correctly pointed out that for six decades Paterno dedicated his life to bettering Penn State and its students.

While winning more games (409) than any football coach in Division I history, JoePa and his wife Sue gave at least $4 million for various building projects. One campus library bears the Paterno name because of their fundraising efforts.

Paterno believed you could obey the rules and play winning football. In 46 years as head coach, he never had a single major NCAA violation and his teams were near the top of the NCAA graduation rate.

However, the final three months of Paterno's life became a tragedy when the child sex abuse scandal involving Jerry Sandusky, a longtime assistant, came to light.

There were shocking revelations that in 2002 a graduate assistant, Mike McQueary, had told Paterno that Sandusky was engaged in improper sexual conduct with a young boy in a campus shower room.

Paterno passed along the information to his boss, athletics director Tim Curley, but never followed up as Sandusky continued to appear around campus.

"I wish I had done more," Paterno said on Nov. 9.

Soon after that, he announced he would be retiring at the end of the year. This was not soon enough for the Penn State Board of Trustees, which fired Paterno on the telephone.

Did this hasten Paterno's death? No one will ever know, but it certainly was an improper way to treat a legend who had given so much to the university.

Many feel that Paterno had stayed on too long. It has been reported that he feared suffering same fate as Bear Bryant. The Alabama icon died of a heart attack four weeks after coaching his final game at Alabama.

I never met Paterno, but I felt a kinship because our paths crossed, without his knowledge, a couple of times.

First, in 1946, when as a teenager I sneaked under a chain link fence at Brown University and watched Paterno play as a defensive back and quarterback. He still holds the Brown record of 14 interceptions.

Paterno's coach was Rip Engle, who moved on to Penn State in 1950. Engle took the Brown star with him and, for 62 years, they were Penn State's only two head coaches.

Incidentally, Engle, who shaped Paterno's career, was head coach of both the football and basketball teams at Brown and also moonlighted as a high school basketball official. Some college coaches had a tough time making ends meet back in the 1940s.

Finally, in 1987, when Penn State upset unbeaten Miami, 14-10, in the Fiesta Bowl, I wrote that Paterno out-coached Jimmy Johnson. The cocky Johnson had the best team, but let his trash-talking, fatigues-wearing players self destruct.

Needless to say, Jimmy doesn't send me any Christmas cards.

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