Sunday, January 22, 2012

Joe Paterno lasted 74 days

The headline says it all: Joe Paterno made it 74 days from the termination of his job to the termination of his life after seemingly not aging even the slightest bit in my entire lifetime. Even after The Stuff, it's hard to grasp that. Maybe he really did need football that much.

The general feeling of sadness is (at least for me) combined with something else; I guess I'd call it disappointment. I'm not sure if that's disappointment at the actions/inactions of a seemingly good human being or disappointment that what should have been a celebration of arguably the best college football coach in the history of history is instead this unsettling sadness/disappointment combo. It's a strange combination. Death is something that's either expected, which allows for some preparation and therefore negates the possibility of post-death disappointment since everybody knows it's coming, or unexpected, which definitely amplifies the sadness but usually combines it with anger or an answer-seeking sort of depression rather than disappointment. This is different because of the events of the last 74 days and the idea that Joe Paterno is no longer JoePa. He can't be JoePa.

Just to be clear, I'm not on board with the definitely-out-there idea that this is some sort of twisted karmic justice. Even if that sort of thing existed, wouldn't it have happened, like, way back when it would have mattered? Besides, I like to think that the kind of God with the power and desire to strike someone dead for a malum in se would have done so to Jerry Sandusky a looong time ago. Joe Paterno dying is just an 85-year-old man dying after losing the thing he lived for. Bear Bryant lasted 37 days after retiring; Joe Paterno lasted twice as long, which is a ridiculous way to think about that amount of time.

There's a sidebar on ESPN right now with the headline, "Legacy outweighs scandal." I'm not sure that's entirely accurate. First of all, how do you define a weight to what just happened when it's both so morally horrifying and so recent? And secondly, I don't think the two can be separated like that. The scandal is a ginormous part of his legacy now. Whether it's the most ginormous is a matter of debate, but it's definitely up there. The way I see it, the only way in which that headline is accurate is this one: Joe Paterno will always be the legendary Penn State coach (first and foremost) whose career ended because of his role in some unspeakable awfulness. The "Penn State coach" part has to come first because it's what Joe Paterno was, is and always will be. I literally cannot envision Joe Paterno doing something other than coaching Penn State or wearing something other than his typical sideline attire. He'll forever be attached to Penn State, which is obviously uncomfortable right now for some people at Penn State but isn't a choice.

While his death in and of itself isn't a bad thing for Penn State in the CLEAN ALL OF THE THINGS mission, it's unfortunate that there's now zero possibility that the school can recognize/honor the guy in an appropriate (based on his net contributions) and timely manner. How do you do that and reconcile it with The Stuff? You don't. You do something at the first home game and/or put a patch on the jerseys or whatever and then move on as Bill O'Brien's Penn State, which doesn't really exist but is something ephemeral to hold onto in an otherwise chaotic and divisive mess. I don't feel sorry for Paterno in that regard -- he brought his firing on himself through morally inexplicable inaction -- but I do feel sorry for the Disney-fied part of me that requires happy endings, which this definitely isn't. It's sad that it's come to this, really.

I wrote this right after finding out Paterno had been fired:
I always assumed I'd wake up one day and he'd just be gone -- not retired or fired but gone. There's nobody I can think of who's more directly associated with a school/team, and after he made it through the meh mid-2000s with his job security intact, I figured he'd be at Penn State until the day he died. Nothing else would be right (for a given definition of "right").
Joe Paterno is gone, and whether the way it all went down was "right" (a loaded word in this context) doesn't matter now. His legacy is what it is, ending included.


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