Joe Paterno died Sunday morning in State College, Pa., and although the circumstances were vastly different, there was a parallel in the death of one of his old rivals, Bear Bryant of Alabama.
When Bryant retired after the 1982 season, it was only a month before he died. Separated from the pursuit that defined him, he was soon gone, and so it is for Paterno.
It’s hard to feel anything but profound sadness. Here was a figure for whom the term “legendary” somehow doesn’t feel like enough, a man revered in his profession and beyond. There was something vastly endearing at how he stayed at one place and made it his own and didn’t change — himself or the uniforms. He got there in 1950 as an assistant coach and became the head man in 1966.
To localize it, Jim Owens was only midway through his tenure at Washington in 1966. Jim Sweeney hadn’t even been hired at Washington State.
Paterno donated millions to Penn State. He seemed more than about football.
But in the end, not enough. His ouster in November arose from his failure to act more boldly than he did in 2002 when confronted by an assistant coach with the incident in which longtime aide Jerry Sandusky allegedly molested a young boy in a shower at Penn State. Paterno said he told superiors at the school, but the issue apparently died there, short of law-enforcement authorities.
“I didn’t know which way to go,” he said recently in his last interview with the Washington Post. “And rather than get in there and make a mistake . . .”
In November, he had conceded his error in judgment, saying, “This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”
In early 1983, the great Bryant died of a heart attack only weeks after coaching the Crimson Tide. Paterno, ravaged by lung cancer, lasted only two and a half months after the end of his regime at Penn State.
The sadness is palpable that what was a great and honorable career ends in ashes. But the real sadness has to be for the victims of child sexual abuse in the Penn State scandal, lives apparently minimized in the long void of integrity at the school.
And this old quote from Paterno stands as a haunting sentinel to his legacy. After Texas beat Arkansas, 15-14, in one of college football’s historic games in 1969, president Richard Nixon went into the Longhorns’ locker room and summarily declared them the national champions, jilting one of Paterno’s best Penn State teams.
“I’d like to know,” Paterno would say years later, “how could the president know so little about Watergate in 1973 and so much about college football in 1969?”