The 46-year head college football coaching career of Joe Paterno, all of which took place at Pennsylvania State University, came to an abrupt end this week amid a mushrooming cloud of a sordid sexual abuse scandal involving his assistant coaches, both past and present, as well as the university's Athletic Director and President.
For the past 15 years Joe Pa, as he is affectionately referred to by the Penn State community, sought desperately and unrelentingly to write the script for the end of his coaching career.
How ironic that by refusing to concede to the frailties of old age and requests by university officials to retire, Joe Paterno's career ended in a forced termination amid circumstances that will likely result in Paterno spending the remainder of his natural life immersed in legal proceedings, both civil and criminal. Let's examine the legacy that could have been and should have been the focus and reflection of a retiree's golden years.
Joe Paterno became the head football coach of Penn State in 1966 after having served as an assistant coach for 16 years beginning in 1950. Think about that for a few minutes. Joe Pa coached at Penn State in some capacity for a total of 61 years. During that period the United States has had 12 presidents and the entire national interstate highway system was constructed. As head football coach of Penn State, Paterno coached 548 games, winning 409 of those games, which is the record for most wins by a head football coach in NCAA division I history.
Penn State won two national championships, had five perfect seasons and won 24 out of the 37 bowl games that it participated. These numbers are staggering and will be the standard for football coaches for years to come. However, it is significant to note that both national championships, all of the perfect seasons and most of the bowl games took place prior to 1995.
But, there was more to the man than just being a football coach. While Joe Paterno was at the helm, Penn State football players were held to a high standard for their academic performances. Paterno called it the “Grand Experiment.” Penn State football players have a consistent record of academic success. As recently as 2008, the four-year graduation rate for Penn State football players was 78 percent, which was considerably above the national average. Paterno was also known for his generous charitable contributions, most notably his contributions in excess of $4 million dollars to the Penn State academic and sports departments.
Joe Paterno was the gold standard of college football coaches. His on the field success was unparalleled, he gave proper emphasis to his player's academic performance and he immersed himself in the university community. He also maintained his residence in a modest house on campus. There was a reason that everyone associated with Penn State University adored the man, loved the man and referred to him as Joe Pa.
So, what happened?
How did his career and reputation, which he painstakingly built over a 61-year period, come crashing down so quickly and so decisively?
If we assume that the career of a highly successful head college football lasts approximately 20 years, perhaps 25 years, then the natural course of Joe Paterno's career would have brought him to retirement somewhere around 1991. We know Paterno was a high-energy man so let's give him another five years beyond the average. That takes us to 1996, at which point Joe could have retired as a highly successful 70-year old college football coach.
The sports world is littered with examples of individuals who did not know when to leave the limelight. For those old enough to remember, who can forget the sad visage of Willie Mays, perhaps the best all around baseball player in history, stumbling his way to the end of his playing career which should have ended two or three years earlier than it did? More recently, Shaquille O'Neill tried to play in the NBA the past two years when his skills clearly had eroded to the point where he would not have been effective playing in a playground pick-up game. The blind pursuit of an extended career is what ultimately cost Joe Paterno his legacy.
During the late 1990s the performance of Penn State football took a downward turn, culminating in a losing record of 26-33 during the period from 2000 to 2004. University officials asked Paterno to retire, prompted by criticism from alumni, fans and the media. He stubbornly and selfishly refused and from that point forward Paterno charted a course in which he would be the sole determinate of when he would retire, relying upon the deep reservoir of good will he had accumulated within the vast Penn State community during his long career. Now in his early 80s, the past few years have been painful and embarrassing to watch as a sports fan.
There have been two incidents of Joe Paterno being injured on the football field due to his lack of mobility and relegated him to coaching from the press box. Anyone who has heard him speak during the past few years have been struck by the frailty of his voice and his obvious infirmities of age. Yet, despite all of this, he refused to retire, indicating he would step down when he was ready.
Now this bizarre scandal of sexual abuse by one of Paterno's former players and longtime assistant coach has brought his career to an inglorious end, forever tarnishing his legacy.
If Paterno had retired in 1996 at the age of 70, as he should have, he would be spending his retirement reflecting upon a great career with an impressive combination of success on the field, academic achievements of his players and generous charitable contributions to his university.
Instead, Joe Pa's legacy has been diminished amidst a scandal during which he fell far short of his own moral standards, compromised the integrity of his beloved university and forced him to enter a world of retirement most likely filled with civil and criminal legal proceedings rather than endless days with his grandchildren.
It is a very sad end indeed.
Tim O'Neil is the Administrative Staff Attorney and Assistant Town Attorney for the town of Mancheser. He provides legal services for the town’s many departments as well as serving as the Assistant Town Attorney. He's also a HUGE sports fan.
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