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Joe Paterno's complicated legacy

He was a good man. Mostly.

He led a good life. Largely.

He became the face of his college, the conscience of his sport, and he stood for the right things. Mainly.

For so many years, for so many games, he was the most admired man in college football. And then he was not. For Joe Paterno, controversy waited until his final days, and then it seized his reputation and would not turn it loose.

Some legacies are complicated. Paterno's will be that way. Do you remember the good of the man? Or do you remember how he turned his head to one of the ugliest controversies imaginable? Will you remember the character he showed, or will you remember the judgment he lacked?

Perhaps, will you remember both?

Paterno, the longtime Penn State coach, died Sunday morning at 85, and a bit of college football passed along with him. Even now, even after all of the scandal, even though most of us agree that Paterno could have done more, should have done more to stop the alleged child abuse by former assistant Jerry Sandusky, the first reaction was sadness. Paterno spent a lot more time being a good guy than a bad one, after all. Somehow, that seems worth remembering.

For a very long time, Paterno was the best thing about college football. He didn't break rules, and he didn't buy players, and he always brought a degree of honor to the stadium with him. When Paterno suggested that college football needed him rather than turn the sport over to then-coaches Barry Switzer or Jackie Sherrill, most of us agreed with him.

No, Paterno wasn't the saint that many of his supporters suggested, not even in the good old days. For the best of men, coaching college football is not a saintly profession. Paterno was an autocrat, and he was a competitive son of a gun, and to tell the truth, he could be a grumpy old cuss. There were times he could be overzealous in his defense of players who broke rules. A few years ago, when the talk began to surface that maybe it was time for another coach, Paterno wasn't having any of it. Step aside? Ha! He was more likely to step on the necks of anyone who would dare bring it up.

Still, Paterno was better than most. He was Joe Pa, and he ran Penn State, and the image of both of them was sparkling clean. In a sport where coaches work overtime to find a shortcut, legal or not, Paterno was a cut above. This small man with the large glasses was proof that a coach could win without wading into the muck.

In some ways, it might have been kinder if Paterno had died a year ago, before all of the outrage, before the charges against his former aide Sandusky, before he was fired over the telephone, before people started being so angry at the sound of his name.

This was Paterno, after all. This was someone who had relished his image as a man who did more in the name of right than was required. And when it came out that Paterno knew and that he did very little while children allegedly continued to suffer, Paterno became a villain himself. The reaction was so shrill, the outrage so evident, that to many, it became the defining moment of Paterno.

And so we wrestle with how Paterno should be remembered. It seems unfair to remember only the Paterno of his final moments, and it seems incomplete only to remember the championship seasons.

I'll say this. As wrong as I thought Paterno was for not pursuing the alleged wrongdoing, as flawed as he was for not trying to learn more, to do more, to protect more, I have never seen this as Paterno choosing his image over justice. That sounds too simple to me, too right vs. wrong. I think it was a complicated moment in a complicated life, and Paterno made the wrong decision. That doesn't forgive anything.

Then again, who knows? There will always be questions about Paterno. What did he know and when? What did he do, and what should he have done? When did he first know he was sick, and when did it get so bad? Even at the end, when Paterno did his final interview with the Washington Post's Sally Jenkins, there were a lot of questions that went unanswered.

At the end of it, how are we to remember Paterno? For the championships? For the great moments of a good man? Or for the ugliness of the final chapter?

Me? I'll remember the good of the man, and I'll regret that, at the end, he wasn't a little bit better.

At the end of an imperfect life, what other choice is there?

Joe Paterno's complicated legacy 01/22/12 [Last modified: Monday, January 23, 2012 11:03am]
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