Despite a lifetime of greatness, a single failure can leave a lasting stain. Consider the first paragraph of Joe Paterno’s Associated Press news obituary:
“Joe Paterno, the longtime Penn State coach who won more games than anyone in major college football but was fired amid a child sex abuse scandal that scarred his reputation for winning with integrity, died Sunday. He was 85.”
Victory. Integrity. Scandal.
Take away that one episode and even those outside the commonwealth of Pennsylvania would seek to anoint Paterno for sainthood.
Still, that final legacy could have positive results as years go on, as more people choose to inform police about the potential of sexual abuse against a child. In many cases, including Kansas, reporting is the law — and that’s what Paterno should have done in the case of his former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.
There was perhaps no better college football coach than Joe Paterno. His Nittany Lions won 409 games, played in 37 bowl games and won two national championships. More than 250 of his players went on to the National Football League.
Paterno’s death from lung cancer was sudden following his firing last November. Yet many who were close to him confided that he would likely not live long after he left the job. That’s how important the role was to him after 61 years at the school and 46 seasons as head coach.
His credo was “Success with Honor.” He often spoke about ethics in sports and made academics a priority for this players. Through 2011, Paterno had 47 academic All-Americans, the third-highest among schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Yet there remains a stain.
After being informed by an assistant of Sandusky’s alleged attack against a boy in the Penn State locker room, Paterno waited a day before alerting school leaders. He did what he was supposed to do, but he did not report the incident to police. Apparently those to whom he reported the matter did not follow up in the proper manner. Police were never called.
Paterno gave just one interview — to the Washington Post — after leaving Penn State.
“I just did what I thought was best,” Paterno told the Post. “I talked to people that I thought would be, if there was a problem, that would be following up on it. …
“It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”
Now, it’s easy for others to say he should have done more. But the national light focused on this tragedy may prompt more victims and witnesses of child sexual abuse to come forward.
This, too, could be Joe Paterno’s legacy.
As a footnote, in light of what he did for Penn State over a period of 61 years, school officials certainly should have exhibited more class in how they informed the coach that he was fired instead of simply making a brief, cold phone call.