Joe Paterno Firing: How Will the Penn State Scandal Alter His Legacy?

JA AllenSenior Writer INovember 9, 2011

MIAMI - JANUARY 03:  Head coach Joe Paterno of the Penn State Nittany Lions watches from the sidelines as his team takes on the Florida State Seminoles in the Fed Ex Orange Bowl at Dolphins Stadium on January 3, 2005 in Miami Gardens, Florida.  Penn State defeated Florida State 26-23 in triple overtime.  (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)
Doug Benc/Getty Images

The fall of Joe Paterno at Penn State is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s classic morality plays centered on larger-than-life tragic heroes.

For Shakespeare, the main character’s hubris became his fatal flaw causing ultimate disgrace and disintegration at the end of a career or a life. These heroes were good men, worthy men who unfortunately tried to extend their reigns beyond the bounds of normalcy.  

King Lear wanted to rule his kingdom forever, through the legacy he entrusted to his two eldest daughters. Dictating that his offspring continue to honor his wishes, follow his direction and accord him the riches and the respect he felt he deserved, Lear allowed flattery and deceit to turn his head.  

Paterno, at age 84, was larger than the university that hired him. He refused to step down, to allow others with more to offer, the opportunity to direct the college football program. He felt entitled to continue coaching and no one dared suggest otherwise because his positive reign of over 60 years blinded not only the coach to the natural order in college athletics—but also those who employed him.

Because Paterno felt he could not live without coaching football, he also felt college football—at least at Penn State—could not survive without Paterno at the helm.

Now, instead of leaving the game and the university he loved at the proper moment, overwhelmed with praise, gratitude and adoration, Paterno will leave under a shadow of doubt and a cloud of distaste.

The longtime coach was fired late Wednesday night by the Penn State Board of Regents.

All of this because Paterno’s defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, was reportedly a pedophile. Paterno reportedly did not know about this until 2002, when an assistant reported having witnessed Sandusky molesting a 10-year-old boy in the showers. This becomes the point when the fatal flaw surfaced. 

21 Sep 1996:  Head coach Joe Paterno of the Penn State Nittany Lions leads his team off the field at the close of the first half as they head to the locker room en route to the Nittany Lions 41-0 victory over the Owls at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford,
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Paterno reported the incident the following day to athletic director Tim Curley, as he was supposed to do. At that time, however, Sandusky was no longer an employee of the University. Sandusky was subsequently banned from the locker rooms, but Curley and vice president Gary Schultz did not report the former defensive coordinator to the police. Curley has since been placed on administrative leave, and Schultz has stepped down. 

Thus, comes the end of an era. Saturday's game against the Nebraska Cornhuskers will be senior day and the first day JoePa hasn't strolled the Penn State sidelines or been in the press box since 1950.

Surely, it will become a seismic moment for the fans assembled in Happy Valley and all the Nittany Lion seniors.

After that, Penn State must play on the road at Ohio State and at Wisconsin in their last two regular season games. At the moment, Penn State is undefeated in the Big Ten with a chance to play for the Big Ten Championship in December if they can defeat all three remaining opponents.

Winning out looks close to impossible, however, judging from the fallout of the past week plus the quality of the competition in the last three games.

Paterno, who has been head coach at Penn State for 46 years, has amassed 409 wins—more than any other coach in the history of major college football. And that's where it will stay, at 409.

Paterno led the Nittany Lions to the very top of college football with sterling records on and off the gridiron. Paterno, ironically, kept the Lions out of the headlines—running what many considered as one of most squeaky clean programs in the country. Integrity was the hallmark of Paterno brand football.

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Paterno toed the line, always abiding by the rules and always expecting his players to do the same.

Taking over the reins in State College in 1966, Paterno steamrolled the opposition from the outset piling up a 30-0-1 record. Paterno’s success out of the blocks became a harbinger of things to come.

But national recognition came later—in the 1980s when Paterno coached the Nittany Lions to two national titles in 1982 and 1986.  

Recently, the Lions again achieved national recognition in 2005 and in 2008. Penn State remains one of the more successful football programs in the nation, thanks to the relentless pursuit of excellence by Paterno.

When he turned 78, the college asked Paterno to retire. He refused to go. Since then, he has been winning regularly, standing at 8-1 this season, the best in the Big Ten.

For more than six decades, this man at the helm directed the future of many of the best athletes in college football. He earned their trust and their respect by always encouraging them to do their best, bringing their talent and most of all, their integrity to bare.  

But in the eyes of many, in 2002, when Paterno learned of the actions of Sandusky on campus in the shower rooms at Penn State University, he blinked.

For once in his life, Paterno’s love of the college and the football program he would die to protect, caused him to fail to do the right thing.

By protecting the reputation of his program and his university, Paterno's minimal action allowed a reported pedophile to allegedly continue this behavior—instead of seeing that Sandusky was put away where he could no longer harm innocents.

The realization of that failing will haunt this honorable man for the rest of his days. That is a tragedy.

Thus, Paterno falls and with him, 60 years of good work will be tainted in that one instance when Paterno looked the other way...