Just three months ago, Joe Paterno was JoePa, the patriarch of college football. He was going to save the ‘80s from the Sherrills and Switzers, and he humbled the ‘Canes in January 1987. He graduated players, donated millions back to the university, and gave a community a larger ethos to believe in.
He was the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year in ‘86, a lifetime achievement award as much as anything else, and had 25 years to put more good works on top of that.
Then, one day in November 2011, he was fired. Two months later, he was dead.
Rarely do men die with their legacies in question. There may be disagreement on what said legacies are, but rarely are they in flux. Yet here we are, trying to weigh a series of Paterno's individual acts, all done with an air of piety that seems disingenuous with distance and hindsight against apparent complicity in unparallelled scandal and fresh, unspeakably horrific acts on his watch.
This isn't just about defining Paterno's legacy. When he left Penn State, it became imperative to reconstruct it from the ground up, something that one would think would take way more than two months to do. Now that he's gone, many will give it a try.
So what's there to do when making sense of a complex figure it seems we may have never known in the first place? Defer to those who knew Paterno to discuss the man who existed, and reassess the opinions we created before and after the Sandusky scandal broke. Paterno was capable of heroism, but incapable of being a hero. Did that make Paterno a great man? That all depends on what Paterno and Penn State meant to you in the first place.
"I was just having that conversation with my parents last night."
That was LaVar Arrington's immediate reaction when asked Sunday afternoon what Paterno meant to him. It wasn't a simple conversation. Arrington was as individually decorated as any Penn State player had ever been during his three years in State College. He was twice a first-team All-American, collected the Butkus and Bednarik Awards as a junior, and made one of the iconic plays in college football history as a Nittany Lion.
And none of that seemed to be enough to please his head coach. "I felt like we were almost adversaries," Arrington says. "I felt like he didn't like me, and it placed me in a position where I didn't like him."
Things have changed since. Arrington sees his time at Penn State as perhaps the most important in making him who he is today, "a man raising men," as he said. "Now that he's gone, it sucks to have that clarity. I never told him this. He probably went to his grave thinking I didn't like him.
"That sucks, man."
Arrington heard Joe was like everyone's granddad, and he didn't need that. He had a loving family and looked to Paterno for guidance, no differently than he looked to professors for guidance in class. He also didn't appreciate Paterno publicly questioning his intellect -- which created a perception about Arrington's brains for years -- nor did he like hearing from his head coach that he, the future No. 2 overall pick in the NFL Draft, wasn't even the best linebacker at Penn State. "I wanted that pat on my back, where he's actually looking at me a certain sort of way about something I did." Instead, he got what he termed "tough love," which often just seemed tough.
"‘I love my school, I love my teammates, I love my coaches, I love everything about the institution I was a part of,'" he recalled. "‘Why can't he love me the way I love him?'
"I couldn't accept that was the role that he took in my life."
And how does Arrington feel now about that place Paterno filled?
"What he's done for me, it's amazing how I live my life, and I know, in large part, it's basically due to how much that man challenged me."
He credits Paterno -- whom he, like all other former players, calls "Joe" -- for helping make him the man he is. He says he challenges himself daily, whether on his radio or television shows, his blog with the Washington Post, marriage and everyday struggles all people confront. And he says he does those things with the same ferocity required to confront what Joe Paterno threw in front of him every day.
"You don't really look at it from that standpoint, but Joe did," Arrington said. "He was able to get the big picture on guys. Either you were going to rise up to the challenge, or you were gonna succumb to it."
Arrington is now 33. He has two sons, both of whom he took to Penn State training camps after he retired from the NFL. It gave him the chance to see Paterno interact with his children and, for what he felt was the first time, address him as a man. Paterno has apologized for being so hard on him, making peace in a way that made Arrington afraid Paterno was "going to die soon."
"Maybe, he got caught up on so much on getting accomplished what he wanted to accomplish that he may have been too hard."
Those were the ups and downs Arrington went through with Paterno in his own life. This is before anything related to Sandusky, which hits closer to home for a man who played at Penn State from 1997-99, forced him to reassess everything.
"That dude (Sandusky) was my coach," he said. "I spent more time around him than anyone else. That becomes your environment. That becomes your family. Was I forced to change my way of thinking? I was there!"
And with all his rethinking, past his public declaration that he can no longer associate with Penn State as he did before, his faith and belief in Paterno remains unshaken. "I know Joe's heart. In looking at how the handled the situation, it would have had to have been due to ignorance of the magnitude of what took place."
He doesn't believe Paterno to be a plaster saint and beyond questioning. "I've paid close attention to the way he's made decisions," he says. "It wasn't always for the positive. I had times where I'm looking at Joe wondering, ‘who's the dude? what's he about?'" Simply notifying his superiors was not enough for many, but Arrington doesn't think Paterno could have done more than tell the athletic director and vice president who oversaw security. If Paterno was truly powerful enough to handle those allegations and all they entailed, he asks, then he wouldn't he have been powerful enough to save his job in November?
But how does Arrington reconcile Paterno, the man who taught him to fight challenges, doing little more than what he was supposed to when confronted with Sandusky and the problems and damage he did to so many?
"To me, I can't bring myself to looking at Joe Paterno," he said before pausing.
"Did he handle the situation the way people wanted him to? That's not for me to decide."
Former players like Franco Harris and Matt Millen have subjected themselves to ridicule in defense of their former coach. But how easily should they detach themselves from someone so integral in getting them to where they are? They aren't just former football players. They are entrepreneurs, college graduates, and fathers. They have been Super Bowl champions, and they have been executives. They played football for Paterno, but he has since been a part of their lives. To abandon him, in their eyes, would be to discredit the profound impact he had on them, and the impact they know he had on countless others.
So, like Arrington, they stood by Paterno until his end, and they'll continue to do so now. If the rest are like Arrington, they know they see things differently than someone would who wasn't close to him. And no matter where it places them relative to public opinion, they will be in that place forever.
"I'm not going to say Joe was perfect in the way he handled it," Arrington said. "But he certainly wasn't inadequate in the way he handled that situation. And not in a way where everything that man handled in his life is null and void. Not at all."
Much of what he handled could be captured by two words: Penn State. For Arrington and his fellow alumni, saying "We Are Penn State" meant something.
"That means higher achievement, that means giving back to the community, it means a standard of being something more than average," Arrington said. "If you know [Paterno] the way that we know him, that's what we represent. Joe Paterno represents us. We represent Joe Paterno."
In what may seem like a peculiar way, that's what Arrington and others are doing -- giving back to the community. To affirm Paterno is to affirm themselves. To highlight the good in him is to speak to the good in themselves.
They are Penn State. Joe Paterno is Penn State. And that's a lot to ask them to abandon, no matter the circumstances.
But those of us who aren't Penn State? We should have no such troubles.
I asked LaVar Arrington if his feelings on Paterno would be more in line with public opinion if he weren't so close to the situation. "If it were your father, and you knew your father made a mistake," he replied, "you're gonna handle that different than someone you had no relation to."
Paterno is not my father, nor was he my coach, nor did he represent anything larger about me. He was a towering figure in college football, one hailed as a model for all others. It was a role he enjoyed and embraced, and one he consistently reaffirmed. The appearance of virtue was so closely associated with Paterno that the whites on Penn State's classically simple uniforms seemed brighter, the empty nameplates more noble and symbolic. He represented the brand of Penn State football, and he lent its credibility to help make juggernauts of both Penn State University and the institution of college football.
That credibility went away months ago, though. No matter what the Joe Paterno that LaVar Arrington knows would have done, it's hard to imagine the Paterno we were sold would have stopped short of keeping Jerry Sandusky away from his, or any other, football complex. Arrington doesn't believe Paterno would have withheld information on child molestation to protect Penn State, but JoePa was Penn State. Penn State was he. And in all those silent years, the only thing that was truly protected was Penn State. If that was an accident, it worked out well for Paterno (until it didn't).
But what was Paterno, if he was not the good guy? What was he, were he not the pristine counterpoint to some of the ugliness wrought by competition in college sports? He clearly wasn't just a football coach, unless you think Barry Switzer and his three national champions will be mourned as JoePa is today. He represented an ideal and, ultimately, he failed the notion he claimed to embody.
Switzer did what Oklahoma's football coaches, from Bud Wilkinson and beyond, had to do -- win, by hook or crook. The institution that paid him, the state of Oklahoma, built the OU juggernaut to improve the post-Dust Bowl self-esteem of its constituents, and Switzer wasn't about to let them down. In the end, the Sooners were disgraced, and the program was crippled for over a decade as they cleaned up the mess they caused while feeding the beast.
Was Paterno truly any different? We'll never definitively know what his intentions were or what went through his mind the last 14 years when he saw Sandusky around the building. But we also know a scandal like this meant more than just wins, recruits or money. It challenged the very notion of what it meant to be "Penn State," something so many tied directly to their self-concept. The man who wasn't going to win the easy way, even if according to protocol, passed the buck. As was the case when black students endured death threats on campus, Paterno did nothing that would tarnish the name that had become synonymous with himself, his neighbors, success and righteousness: Penn State.
He was beholden to the same forces as everyone else in college sports, even if he chose to play the game his own way. In the end, he fell victim to what so many thought he was above, as if any man is above those awkward moments when principle, reality and self-interest collide.
But let's not pretend this was some average dude. Simply comparing his paycheck to his peers' and seeing his modest home on the news the last few months spoke to the fact he wasn't exactly like the rest. His dedication to education continued into the new millennium (even the guys in Paterno's doghouse got degrees, Arrington says). For goodness sake, he donated millions and raised more to build a library because that's what Penn State needed to be a top-flight university. He used his position to do great things to help a great number of people.
Was he a great man? I have no idea.
Does it matter? That's the real question.
If you, like math wizard Darren Rovell, think Paterno was the guy he was purported to be, but with one demerit, you're missing the point. Great men are hard to find. Saints rarely exist on Earth. But just as hard to find are people like Paterno, who do great things at all. Appreciating his good work did not require lionizing him, nor does honestly confronting his shortcomings require he be demonized.
Had we not dressed up his good deeds in so much schmaltzy bullshit, painting a picture of Paterno we can easily see now was unrealistically pure, maybe Penn State wouldn't have been so fearful of coming clean. We can't just dig up effusive obituaries, written well in advance, with a November 2011 addendum tacked onto them. It would be wrong to pick up Paterno's story from two months ago, like a movie jumping through the continuum to save time. We can start over, and we can handle it quickly.
As many good things as Arrington has to say about Paterno, his coach was not his hero. He never should have been any of ours.
As Arrington said, Joe Paterno was a man who knew great things were possible if you attacked challenges. In the end, we all wish he had attacked one more. Even good men fall short. Sometimes, way short.
May he rest in peace.