Paterno latest reminder extraordinary leaders make mistakes in judgment too

Impacted too many lives in 62 years at Penn State to allow the ones he endangered with neglect dominate eulogies of his life

On homemade signs placed by the Joe Paterno statue outside Beaver Stadium and online tributes Sunday, you saw images of the same words expressed often: JOEPA, RIP.

It is a nice thought and what people say when someone dies to set a respectful tone. But, understandably, there was little peaceful about some reactions to news that Paterno soon will be laid to rest after succumbing to lung cancer in a State College, Pa., hospital. He was 85.

The first paragraph of every obituary on Paterno required mention he won more college football games than any Division 1 coach — 409. Duty obligates the next line to include Paterno presided over one of the biggest scandals in college sports history that resulted in longtime Penn State assistant Jerry Sandusky being charged with child sex abuse.

Fair accounts of Paterno's life cannot mention one without the other immediately following, not when it has been only 74 days since Penn State's board of trustees dismissed college football's winningest coach for his inaction in the Sandusky scandal. Emotional wounds remain fresh; victims' advocates continue to seek justice and question football's rightful place on the Penn State campus.

Yet reasonable people can express outrage at what Paterno didn't do near the end of a Hall of Fame career and still show appreciation for what he did the rest of it.

You can believe Paterno deserved to be fired for blindly enabling Sandusky but feted for making Penn State an exemplary college football program the majority of his 46 years as head coach. You can admonish Paterno for not intervening to save more boys from an accused sexual predator yet admire him for shaping the futures of generations of young men he coached at Penn State since 1950.

You can be conflicted defining a Paterno legacy that needs more time to fully, fairly interpret.

That might not be profound or polarizing enough to get quoted on "SportsCenter." But classifying a life packed with as many rich, diverse experiences as Paterno's can be more complicated than screaming off the top of one's head.

There is no wrong reaction to an icon's death. Since Paterno's passing, I have received email essays praising JoePa as the most influential man in Pennsylvania and visceral appeals from critics calling Paterno Sandusky's accomplice. I get it. I am barely done ranting over Paterno's Washington Post interview, his final one as it turned out, that did nothing to change my opinion Paterno saw only what he chose to see when it came to Sandusky. This soon after Sandusky's arrest I still hesitate calling Paterno a great man and prefer emphasizing he did some great things for the sport.

So go ahead and spit on Paterno's grave if you choose or defend his life's work if that better suits your feelings. Do whatever feels right. What feels right to me is taking a 35,000-foot view of a coaching career that, ultimately, provided college football examples of integrity more often than not.

In the context of Paterno's memory, it isn't an either/or proposition. It isn't either he was good or evil; innocent or guilty; success or failure. It isn't either he symbolized the best of college football or the worst.

To me, Paterno simply serves as the latest reminder that extraordinary leaders make mistakes in judgment the way ordinary people do. If we can take away anything immediately from the complex legacy of Paterno — besides the need for everyone to speak up if they suspect child abuse — it revolves around the myth of coaching majesty.

What we learned most from Paterno's final few months, revelations some want to trump his previous six decades on the job, is that everybody needs to stop deifying college head coaches on Saturday and every day.

They are humans prone to weakness, not infallible athletic demigods bigger than the universities they represent. They are at once brilliant and flawed, qualities we need to remember before placing them on a pedestal. Sometimes coaches lose perspective and develop blind spots as much as the fans who fill football stadiums and basketball arenas.

Regrettably, in his final years of coaching when it came to Sandusky, Paterno did. It created an indelible stain on an unparalleled career.

Still, Paterno impacted too many lives in 62 years at Penn State to allow the ones he endangered with neglect dominate eulogies of his life. The weight of those positive influences remains too heavy to negatively tip the scales.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh
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