Dooley: Paterno's legacy, despite complications, will never die

In this Oct. 17, 2009 file photo, Penn State coach Joe Paterno smiles as he walks the field before an NCAA college football game against Minnesota in State College, Pa. (AP/file)

Published: Sunday, January 22, 2012 at 10:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 22, 2012 at 10:00 p.m.

No matter who you are, no matter what you believe, no matter how you have felt for the last three months since the story originally broke, there has to be sadness in your heart.

Joe Paterno is no longer with us.

His legacy as Penn State's football coach will never die.

But how you perceive that legacy is what makes the Paterno story so complicated.

So much depends on how selective your memory is.

His supporters will remember the great things he did, the money he gave to the school, the meager (for a BCS college football coach) salary he took, the championships, the boys who became men, the stadium filled and rocking.

They will look at his last interview and see a dying man who just didn't get it when the shower incident involving former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky and a boy was reported to him. They will take what he said in his last interview as evidence that he wasn't trying to cover anything up. He was just confused.

"I never heard of, of, rape and a man."

His detractors will point out that he's Catholic and you don't need to know how to get on Facebook to know about the scandals that rocked the church involving pedophilia. His last interview with Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post brings either sympathy or more anger.

Does the scandal that engulfed Paterno over the last 12 weeks of his life outweigh the 62 years of service as a football coach? Again, it depends on how you want to remember him.

Those who knew him the best will tell you Paterno's body of work cannot be destroyed by one lapse of judgment.

But there are a lot of people who will tell you that his legacy is an expensive mink coat and the scandal is a can of red paint that was splashed all over it.

There will be parallels drawn between the deaths of Paterno and former Alabama coach Bear Bryant, who joked with reporters after his final game he'd probably “croak in a week.” Bryant died four weeks later — on Thursday it will be 30 years ago — of a heart attack while he was being hooked up to an electrocardiogram machine.

He became the reason so many coaches want to keep going, as if Bryant's decision to retire had more to do with his death than his lifestyle did. And so the simplistic view will be that Paterno went out like Bryant — when he stopped coaching it killed him. Paterno's fall from grace probably didn't help, but there are more physiological reasons than psychological ones why an 85-year-old man with cancer and a broken pelvis passed away.

(I talked to Urban Meyer, who was close to Paterno, a few weeks ago and he said he had spoken with Paterno. “He sounded like he was 110 years old,” Meyer said.)

Paterno and Bryant both achieved iconic status, both won their final game against Illinois, both were intimidating in different ways. But Bryant is still a legend while Paterno's legacy is in the eye of the beholder.

Still, even if you have spent the last three months disgusted and angry, this is a sad day. How sad? Depends on what bounces around in your head when you think about Joseph Vincent Paterno.

A builder of men, the winningest major college football coach of all time and the poster coach for old-school loyalty?

A child abuse enabler who thought he was the Penn State puppeteer who controlled all in his kingdom?

Or somewhere in between?

You cannot define Paterno by the scandal any more than you can write about his career without leading with it.

His demise was tragic, but the real tragedy is that his life is over but the sordid story is not. And the deeper sadness is for the boys who were allegedly abused in part because of the major university that failed them.

Some wept for Joe Paterno today. Some prayed for his soul.

Because no matter how you feel about what happened, Happy Valley was the most misnamed place in America on Sunday.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at And follow at

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