He Was Penn State

Is it appropriate to mourn the death of Joe Paterno?

Penn State head coach Joe Paterno in September 2011.

Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images.

When I was a student at Penn State, we sometimes speculated about what the university would do when Joe Paterno died. A day off, we generally agreed, but then the conversation would end. It seemed a bit like discussing who would get the good china when the grandparents died—too painful to consider seriously, lest it come to pass and leave one feeling not just grief, but guilt about having aired such selfish thoughts.

I did not approve of Paterno’s handling of the Sandusky accusations—the fact that he alerted school administrators to Sandusky’s alleged crimes but did not inform the police. I thought, and still think, that the school’s Board of Trustees did the right thing when it fired him. Nevertheless, I mourn him now that he has passed away from lung cancer at the age of 85, because we do not have to reserve our grief for those who are perfect.

For Penn State students, Paterno was the campus grandfather, old-fashioned and sometimes perplexed by the technological and social changes the world saw in his years. (Before a bowl game, it was rumored, he told the players not to stay up all night playing “television games.”) But his gruff, old-school manner made him all the more precious to 21st-century undergrads, many of them far from home for the first time and looking for a bit of comfort. They found it in his image, which was plastered on their coffee mugs, socks, and posters. Once, driving through campus, near the library that bears his name, I saw him shuffling across the street, eyes down, arms pumping, and thought that anyone else would’ve been run over if they walked that way. But everyone would brake for Joe.

As Paterno continued to coach through repeated health struggles, it became strange not to joke about his perplexing ability to hang on. It was in that spirit that my fellow alumni and I howled at an August 2011 Onion article titled “Penn State Players All Worried They’re Going To Be the One Who Accidentally Kills Joe Paterno.

At the time, none of us could have imagined the way Paterno would go: in the shadow of the stomach-turning Jerry Sandusky scandal, his legacy tainted by a deeply contentious discussion over the difference between moral and legal obligation and who exactly “the police” were at Penn State. Now, many will try to sum up his death with stats: wins, losses, bowl games, players in the NFL, players who got arrested, the mistakes he made. Paterno was an old man, and deaths of the elderly and ill often feel peaceful and logical. But his death was anything but. It seems unfair to me, even as a Paterno critic, that he was unable to live to see the outcomes of the many investigations into Penn State’s handling of the Sandusky scandal. He will not be vindicated, nor will he be able to redeem himself. One of our last memories of him will be from the night that students gathered at his modest State College, Pa., home on the night of his firing. Paterno led the crowd on his front lawn in a Penn State chant—something the students found cathartic, but a moment that many, both within and outside the school community, saw as inappropriate and perhaps a bit flip.

Reading that Onion article now is a quaint reminder of when Paterno’s legacy was straightforward.

While Penn State sources admitted the team’s focus on preserving the delicate health of their octogenarian coach has somewhat limited their football program, all agreed that at this point Paterno’s presence on the sidelines means more to the school than winning games.

“Joe Paterno is a national treasure, and as far as I’m concerned, he can coach as long as he wants,” Penn State president Graham Spanier told reporters. “I mean, without Penn State, the man would drop dead in a second, and I’m certainly not going to be the one to kill him.”

Spanier was fired on the same day as Paterno.

For that subset of alumni who remain convinced that Paterno was scapegoated by the school’s Board of Trustees, his death will no doubt be considered a crime—they took away his team, and they took away his will to live. This line of thought is insulting: Paterno himself emphasized repeatedly that his life was rich, and not merely in football wins. Wearing a wig and his trademark glasses, he told the Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins in his last interview, “You know, I’m not as concerned about me. What’s happened to me has been great. I got five great kids. Seventeen grandchildren. I’ve had a wonderful experience here at Penn State. I don’t want to walk away from this thing bitter. “ This would be the only time he would speak publicly about the scandal.

Football couldn’t have kept him alive any more than his five kids and 17 grandchildren could, even if the stress of these last three months—has it really been only three months since there was congressional support to give Paterno a Presidential Medal of Freedom?—could not have helped.

Paterno’s grandfatherly image had its price: Mike McQueary, who went to Paterno’s house in 2002—my freshman year—to report that he had seen Jerry Sandusky abusing a boy in a shower, has said he didn’t use graphic terms to describe what he witnessed “out of respect” for the coach’s age. It is peculiar, that urge to shield the elderly from truth, since they have seen more than the rest of us—and Paterno saw a whole lot.

My feelings about Paterno will be confused for years to come. He taught me the joy of feeling part of a community. He let me believe sports programs could be ethical. He fell short of that mark—most egregiously in the Sandusky case, but in other incidents as well. But that is, in some ways, what makes him feel like family: Even when he disappointed and angered me, I couldn’t stop caring for him.