For as long as he coached–and that was a long time–the book on Joe Paterno was simple.
He was a simple man with simple needs, living in a small house near the football stadium, his number publicly listed in the phone book, taking a surprisingly small salary for a big-time college coach. He coached a team that wore simple uniforms and ran a simple offense. He had his fundamentals, and he stuck with them, so much so that he became a symbol for resisting change–the rock unaffected by the river rushing around it.
Now all of a sudden, that legacy has gone from solid to “complicated.” As Michael Weinreb writes on Grantland:
We made him extraordinary for being ordinary.
That’s what’s been so perplexing about these past couple of months, for those of us who grew up around his Penn State football program: The final act of Paterno’s career was a fundamental contradiction, a repudiation of all we’d come to believe. We knew he wasn’t like us, but he made us think that deep inside he was, and maybe we were naïve for believing it in the first place, but that doesn’t make the shock and surprise about Paterno’s potential culpability in the Jerry Sandusky child-rape allegations any less real.
Imagine what the eulogies for Paterno would’ve looked like if the Sandusky scandal had never happened. Would the word “complicated” have appeared anywhere near any of them? Maybe, by the end of the week, when sportswriters were looking for some new angle that hadn’t been addressed in any of the thousands of other stories. But it would’ve been a stretch.
Even worse, imagine what they would’ve looked like if Paterno had overcome Penn State’s–and his own–institutional inertia and done the right thing when he first found out about Sandusky, all those years ago. “Hero to young people.” “Wouldn’t rest until he saw justice done.” “Fatherly protector.”
But just a few months after the Sandusky story broke–months making up barely a fraction of the time Paterno has spent at Penn State–“complicated” is the most generous thing you can say about his legacy.
The same desire for simplicity and resistance to change that made Paterno an institution crippled him when it came to dealing with the monstrosity in front of him. By all accounts, Paterno is an exceptionally good and generous man. But when his simplicity was challenged by events, it came out as complacency. He didn’t want to shake things up when a shake up was desperately called for.