Joe Paterno died early Sunday morning.  A coach of truly legendary proportions, perhaps the greatest tribute was the high esteem in which he was held by the coaching fraternity itself.  Joe Pa died of lung cancer.  Unfortunately, he died under a cloud.  Perhaps the best reflection on this situation and the man that many still honor comes from Howard Bryant of ESPN.  Here are some of his thoughts.  Click the ESPN LINK for his full comments and related posts. Bryant writes:

“When any person dies, his or her time must be viewed in its totality, out of respect for a life lived, to give the ritual of death its dignity; and for the sake of posterity, to provide clarity as emotions surge and cool over the months and years.

For the famous, it is a difficult task, for that totality is a myth. Only the public face exists; the rest is projection. For Joe Paterno, who died Sunday morning at the age of 85, his 60-year football life transformed in less than three weeks from icon to infamous, a total picture of his time might be an impossibility, at least now. The twin ends of his coaching career and life were so defined by some of his final public words — in many ways a chilling statement from a man who won more college football games than anyone in history. Those words did not contain a hint of double meaning.

It will be difficult to separate the way Joe Paterno spent most of his career from the way it ended.

“In hindsight, I wish I had done more,” he said in the days before his firing.

Long before the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke, Paterno had become so much a part of Penn State football, and it had been so much a part of him, that it was commonly presumed the old man would not survive without the game to which he gave his life. It is said of longtime marriages that once one partner passes, the will for the other to remain evaporates.

In this case, that’s a wistful narrative, but Paterno did not die of a broken heart. He died of lung cancer. Over the next hours, days and weeks, there will be a reflex to frame his death within the prism of his final, disgraced months, both from supporters who believe the Sandusky scandal hastened his death and unnecessarily destroyed a good man, and from the detractors who believe that only the enormous specter of Paterno’s powerful name kept him from being held even more accountable by the public, and law enforcement.

His death marks the end of the Penn State dynasty, a process that began when he was fired on the night of Nov. 9. The school will never hold the same singular, iconic place it did during Paterno’s 20th century. And the people he touched — those who worked with and played for him, as well as Penn State and college football fans who care so deeply about sports and its place in the national culture — will remember him fondly and reverentially.”

My own response to all is this echoes Bryant in many ways.  Collegiate coaches occupy a huge place in a culture where sports is held in such high esteem and often shapes persons’ sense of personal well-being. Coaches like Joe Pa were born into a different generation–before the celebrity shaping power of the media, the program intimidating spending of alumni benefactors, and a sense of entitlement that many pampered athletes seem to possess.  Discipline and character-building are often undermined by the need to win and to win the big bucks that go with winning. Sports in a this new age is often more than a coach from Joe Paterno’s generation seems able to manage–especially the complexity of the forces that seek to shape college athletics and the cultural poverty that shapes so many athletes.  Joe Pa has long been in over his head in this world. He did not find persons sharing with a common ground of honor and education and leadership.  It is obvious that he found himself living in the neighborhood of some wolves and predators. “I wish I’d done more” says volumes, but one has to question whether it was really within both his worldview and capabilities to do more.

There is still a verdict to be rendered in all of this.  Personally, I am not prepared or even equipped to do so, so I’ll simply say, “Rest in Peace, Joe Pa.”


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