It is not as if Joe Paterno coached 111 college football victories posthumously. That restored portion of his record at Penn State wasn’t so much a give-back by the NCAA on Friday as it was an acknowledgment that things cannot un-happen.
Paterno’s teams in fact won those 111 games—from 1998, when the first complaint of possible child molestation by Paterno assistant Jerry Sandusky reached police, until 2011, when the Sandusky scandal became public and Paterno was fired for not having acted on an abuse charge against Sandusky.
So Paterno, three years after his death, once again is in the record books for winning more games (409) than any other coach at the highest level of college football. Fine. There are ramifications to rewriting history.
Just as necessary as maintaining an accurate record of wins and losses, though, is acknowledging what got Paterno in trouble in the first place—his elevation to sainted status that surely came into play when the Penn State brand was threatened by the Sandusky revelations. And Paterno, the most powerful man in State College, Pa. (and likely all of Pennsylvania) failed to do more about the awful transgressions on his watch.
Let’s not erase that part of the story, either.
Paterno literally had been put on a pedestal, his seven-foot statue outside the school’s palatial football stadium serving as a pilgrimage site for Penn State fans. An inscription with the statue glowingly proclaimed Paterno an “Educator, Coach, Humanitarian.” He was canonized for his “success with honor” motto that, after the Sandusky mess, sounded ironic at best.
Maybe the trouble was immortalizing Paterno in bronze while he still was alive, which not only fed his self-importance (subconsciously or otherwise) but also prophesied a purity of virtue impossible for any human being to live up to.
Better for universities to sculpt likenesses of some figure of history who is no longer around to take himself too seriously. Or, even less dangerous, a fictional personage. (I therefore submit that my alma mater, the University of Missouri, had a better idea with the two statues on campus: One of Thomas Jefferson, because Mizzou was the first university west of the Mississippi River built in Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase territory; the other of Beetle Bailey, a comic strip character. Beetle and his pals were based on fraternity brothers of his creator, Mort Walker, when Walker was a Missouri student. You may recognize the two honored characters below, during my recent visits.)
Eight months after Paterno was fired—and six months after his death—Penn State officials removed his statue, declaring that it had become a “source of division and an obstacle to healing.” It is hard to know whether Paterno could have been aware of that, or if he somehow is monitoring efforts afoot now to bring back his sculpted likeness. Does he worry, in the afterlife, about the rehabilitation of his legacy?
Some say once gone you’re gone forever
And some say you’re gonna come back
Iris DeMent considered in song,
But no one knows for certain so it’s all the same to me
I think I’ll just let the mystery be.
In this matter of Paterno’s (figurative?) resurrection, it does seem downright cynical that some Penn State boosters want to go beyond his football-record comeback, with fund-raising already in progress to erect a second statue in downtown State College, depicting Paterno seated while reading Virgil’s “Aeneid.”
That Latin epic poem was Paterno’s favorite, an ode that is all legend and exaltation of moral values, chronicling Aeneas’ devotion and loyalty to his country and its prominence—rather than personal gain. It all sounds like Penn Staters again poised on the slippery slope of hero-worship. So many of them were so enamored of football success that Paterno took on the fatherly title of “JoePa;” turned up on life-sized cardboard cutouts (“Stand-Up Joes”) sold in State College; gave the campus creamery reason to market “Peachy Paterno” ice cream. The Sandusky scandal, and the fact his crimes went on so quietly for so long, hinted strongly that Paterno and his football operation had become too powerful to rein in, too locked into the tunnel-vision of producing football success to pay attention to the Sandusky menace right under their noses.
Paterno did leave behind some substantial worth in his 46 years at the school. More than $4 million personally donated to university projects. Hundreds of millions of dollars raised for Penn State through the football operation, including admission into the lucrative Big Ten Conference.
The visibility that Paterno and his teams brought to Happy Valley factored into growing Penn State as a prominent academic institution, and he was further applauded for his insistence that he would not allow athletic preference over education. He called it his “Grand Experiment.”
In the end, though, Sandusky’s depravity knocked Paterno off that pedestal. So, let the old coach keep his football victories. But the complete picture is not a work of art.