Joe Paterno's passing would've been the biggest story of the college football season even if not for his tragic mistake in the Jerry Sandusky scandal. He was the winningest coach in Division I history, but that's not why his story matters so much. If we're ignoring games that were un-won, Bobby Bowden won only 10 fewer, and that's discounting Bowden's non-NCAA wins. This isn't to say Bowden won't be remembered, but perhaps no living coach is going to inspire the same kind of John Wooden-esque tributes. (That's leaving aside the many have-we-figured-out-whether-his-legacy-is-good-or-bad-yet stories, which have added even more volume.)
One thing we can be sure of: Joe Paterno changed the sport, his school and his region, and it's hard to imagine any one person having as much impact on any of it as he did. Consider some of the following:
"He, along with his wife Sue, helped transform a sleepy land grant institution in the center of a blue collar state into an academic giant. Penn State became an elite institution without becoming elitist in large part due to the leadership of this Ivy League-educated man from Brooklyn,'' said Anthony Lubrano of Glenmoore, Pa., who graduated in 1982 and is seeking a seat on the school's Board of Trustees. "His contributions to humanity far outweigh his notoriety on the gridiron.''
In the mid-1960s, there was no such thing as a Northeastern power in college football.
Michigan State and Notre Dame dominated the Midwest. Bear Bryant's Alabama teams ruled the South. Out West, UCLA was at its best and USC was rising again.
Then came Joe Paterno.
The addition of Penn State expanded the Big Ten in more ways than geography. Sure, it added fans in New York and the East Coast to what had been a somewhat insular, Midwestern league. But it also enhanced the conference's prominence nationally. Recruiting for other schools started stretching further to the East while Paterno made inroads in Ohio and Michigan. And the inclusion of Penn State increased the Big Ten's television profile and almost immediately proved to be a financial bonanza for all 11 schools.
Behind Joe Paterno's Beaver Stadium statue are the words, "Educator, Coach, Humanitarian." They really could have been arranged in any order. Yes, he won a few football games, and the grand scope of Paterno's educational and humanitarian achievements was not possible without his blossoming football program. It not only changed the lives of those who passed through it, but also of those who were just lucky enough to be around it for few hours on a Saturday afternoon. It brought together people of all types, forging friendships that otherwise never would have existed. It made us feel bigger than we actually were. Paterno believed that his players could succeed on the field and in the classroom. When ordinary students could overcome their starstruck feelings to say hello, Paterno would ask if they were studying and going to class. He believed in all of us, whether we knew it or not.