Before the 2011 college football season began, the legacy that Joe Paterno would leave behind once he retired from Penn State was unquestioned. Now? It’s much more complicated. The man who some say “made” Penn State passed away at the age of 85 early Sunday morning. Paterno had been fighting a battle with a form of lung cancer. In less than three months, Paterno’s storybook career at Penn State came crashing down like a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.
Paterno was fired as head coach of Penn State by the Board of Trustees on Nov. 9, 2011 amid his role in sexual abuse allegations involving former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, who worked under Paterno for many seasons. Sandusky was charged with several counts of sexual crimes against young boys. Paterno wasn’t directly involved in the Sandusky allegations, but was questioned several times about his actions after hearing Mike McQueary’s account in 2002 of him witnessing Sandusky sexually abusing a boy.
Undoubtedly, Paterno’s reputation will forever be tarnished by his decision making following McQueary’s conversation with him. There are those that will forever love him for the 409 career victories, two national championships, and countless contributions to the Penn State community, including helping raise over $13 million for expansion to the Pattee Library. There are also those who will always condemn him for not acting differently in the Sandusky saga.
Perhaps Paterno simply didn’t know what do to in that situation. Many critics have said that he should have gone to the police following what McQueary had told him. Hearing something like that may have clouded Paterno’s mind to the point that he was unsure of what he had heard. Just think about this: You are a long time employee of firm “XYZ” with a long time friend who works with you. Suppose you have someone tell you that he or she walked in on said friend sexually abusing a young boy. What would you do?
The human mind is a strange thing. Sometimes we don’t believe what we hear. Sometimes we don’t want to believe what we are hearing. Now, let me be clear: I don’t support Paterno’s actions in any shape or form. He should have gone straight to the police after hearing McQueary’s story. I think Penn State had to fire him after being involved (and still being involved) in a scandal of that nature. It was the only decision for the university to make. The bigger question involves what happens going forward.
Paterno’s legacy largely depends on the outcome of the Sandusky case. As of now, he will be remembered as someone who helped build Penn State into a national power in both the academic and athletic worlds. The man will go down in history as the greatest college football coach of all time. But the name will be stained for eternity.