Joe Paterno was the sort of public figure so significant and so old that his obituary had been written long ago and tweaked over the years, saved on hard drives and ready for a quick update and file. Usually the final three months of such a person’s life are not so newsworthy, but in the case of Paterno, the script got jumbled. You saw it in the qualifiers in obits like the New York Times’, which dedicated more than half its lede to the firestorm that alleged child rape brought down on Penn State after Jerry Sandusky was indicted in November. This send-off was more than simply plugging in the time and cause of death. It was trying to figure out what the hell happened to our definition of Joe Paterno in the final one-five-hundredth of his life.
For writers like Pat Forde, there was too much pre-Sandusky JoePa to supersede all that landed after. Under the headline “Paterno passing also means death of an ideal,” Forde came not just to mourn the man, but to throw dirt on the very notion of major college athletics that until last year seemed to live in Happy Valley exclusively, on fall Saturday afternoons as imagined by the Saturday Evening Post. No longer, Forde assured us: “Penn State as we know it has died as well.”
They’re burying the uniqueness of Penn State football, where it was OK to be old-fashioned. They’re burying a place where commitment was unconditional between school and coach. A place that dared to be dull amid the Oregonization of college football. A place where the coach never strong-armed the school for a bigger salary, never hesitated to help the school’s educational mission, never sold out to the corner-cutting methods that felled other big names in the profession.
Amid the burials of both good and bad, one thing is sure: We will not see anything like the Paterno-Penn State dynamic ever again. It is a relic of a different era.
He also noted the short skid from retirement to interment. “In State College on the jarring night of Nov. 9,” he wrote, “I had a bad feeling that these obituary columns would be written soon.” The program and the coach were so intertwined that a blow to one was felt by both. Not that we ever assumed Paterno owned the complete set of Oz DVDs, but you have to wonder if there was some honest blindness in the man when he claimed to Sally Jenkins a few days ago that he had “never heard of, of, rape and a man.” That’s an absurd claim from any grown person. Still, in the kind of idyll ascribed to Paterno’s program, there’s a consistency there. If we were willing to view Penn State as an untouched paragon of American purity, Paterno was content to live it.
This was no recent phenomenon. Paterno’s been viewed as apple pie incarnate at least since the late ’60s. Dan Jenkins (Sally’s dad) parachuted into State College during Paterno’s third (!!) season as head coach at Penn State and wrote a slice-of-the-program piece for Sports Illustrated that ran in 1968 and would’ve looked modern at any point before about 2004, when Paterno lost enough games to see his clout erode. In those days when Penn State was an independent, Jenkins saw the school as half Ivy, half Big Ten, and quoted a Brown alumnus named Joe Paterno who even then was a walking anachronism:
I tell the kids who come here to play, Enjoy yourselves. There’s so much besides football. Art, history, literature, politics. The players live all over the campus. I don’t want ’em to have a carpeted athletic dorm or be bunched in together where they can’t associate with all types of students. When a kid takes a look around here and says, ‘Gee, there’s nothing to do,’ I tell him I suppose there was nothing for the Romantic poets to do in the Lake District of England.
Sportswriters are creatures accustomed to balancing the mawkish against the severe. They’ve seen everything. They’ve seen home runs that crushed hearts, interceptions that ended careers. They’ve waded past joy to meet a deadline and picked open fresh sorrow, like cracking the shell on warm crème brulee, to get at the paragraph inside. Yet no one gets into this godforsaken business without feeling inspired by what athletes can command on a field. Something about Paterno played to that sentimentality right from the beginning and right until the awful end. When writers talk about the conflicted legacy Paterno left, they’re speaking as the arbiters of legacy, and the conflict they feel when the last Santa Claus they still believed in turns out to abet the raping of children.
If there had been no Jerry Sandusky, the Dan Jenkins portrait and its many variations over the years would’ve been the image we held of Paterno in perpetuity. In itself, there’s nothing wrong with that. The university was short-sighted to cede as much power to Paterno as it did. But such an epic implosion was hardly inevitable. The coach was no tyrant, no crook — really not even much of a jock. Maybe if Paterno had died without the stain of hushed rape on his program, Forde would still be writing that Penn State as we know it has died. And in that scenario, we might even get choked up reading it.