There was always a sense of fatalism. Not that he would one day die, that’s an inevitably we all face. But for the serious fan of college football, I think that there was a thought that he was never really meant to live apart from the game. Even before the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke, I think that sentiment existed.
Joe Paterno died today.
He was the winningest coach in the history of college football, but for many years of that career, he was pursing the wins record of the famous Alabama coach Paul “Bear Bryant. When Bryant retired after the 1982 season, he was asked how he would spend his time and replied that he would probably “croak in a week.”
Bryant did end up dying 29 days later. For so many years, the two names were linked as Paterno chased Bryant. As he aged, it seemed as if Paterno was not going to leave football save for the Grim Reaper’s scythe of death taking him from the field.
When he was fired in November, again the sense of fatalism returned that the legend was near the end.
A few days after the Penn State Board of Trustees fired him, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. At the time, a concerted public relations effort began to minimize the severity of his condition.
On November fifth, the Sandusky scandal first game to national attention. On November eighth, Paterno announced that he would retire at the end of the season. Later that evening, the Penn State Board of Trustees relieved him of his coaching duties. One Saturday, he coached a football game; and the next he was no longer part of the program. For such a long and illustrious career, it had ended in an instant. There was no closure.
Over the past decade, in different seasons, people said that the game had past him by and that he needed to retire, but Penn State allowed him to continue coaching. In an era where there is a revolving door for head football coaches, Paterno remained. He seem destined for that great final sendoff where he would ride off on the proverbial white horse. But unlike Russell Crowe’s character in “A Beautiful Mind,” Paterno was gone before people were able to give him their pens. Then the scandal broke and the career was over.
And just a few days after his firing, the cancer diagnosis came.
A legacy that had taken a lifetime to build was destroyed in the eyes of many, his job and livelihood was unceremoniously stripped away from him, and then he was diagnosed with lung cancer. All things considered, I think it’s hard to be surprised that his passing occurred so quickly.
With the way in which his career ended, many pity Paterno. I’m sure I’ll sound cold hearted, but I struggle to feel any sympathy for his tarnished legacy. Penn State had to fire Paterno. By his own actions, he was faced with a situation in which he could have done the right thing, and he failed to do that.
I had no ill will towards Paterno. Nothing changes that fact that he was an institution and will always be one of the greatest coaches of all time. Nothing takes away the fact that he had a positive impact on so many lives. I hope that he is able to enter the next world with a peace which seemed to allude him as he exited this world. Joe, Rest in Peace.