If America does nothing else right, it celebrates the legacy of its sports heroes. And so the country has, in the wake of his death Sunday at age 85, tried to come to grips with how it will remember former Penn State University football coach Joe Paterno.
For 46 years, there was never any question how America and its football-mad sports fans would memorialize JoePa, the dean of college coaches. After all, Paterno had won 409 games at Penn State, more than any other coach in the history of the game, and with each passing season -- as talk of his imminent retirement swirled around him -- the iconic head coach remained steadfast, as dependable as the sun rising in the east.
That seemingly unbending illusion was shattered last year when, in a matter of a few ugly days, Paterno's good friend and former assistant head coach Jerry Sandusky was implicated in a sex scandal, accused of molesting 10 young boys. In the aftermath, Paterno and longtime Penn State President Graham Spanier were unceremoniously fired, the legacy of each tarnished by his association with Sandusky.
Paterno, who initially defended his longtime assistant and close friend, was fired by university trustees because of his initial refusal to pass on a report of inappropriate activity by Sandusky. When graduate assistant Mike McQueary reported to Paterno that he'd seen Sandusky with a young boy in the shower at the Penn State football complex, the head coach waited a day before alerting school officials. And he never made a report to campus or civilian law enforcement authorities.
"I didn't know which way to go," Paterno famously said after news of the scandal broke. "I just did what I thought was best. I talked to people that I thought would be, if there was a problem, that would be following up on it."
He later admitted, "With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more."
So, too, did the Penn State Board of Trustees. They didn't even call Paterno in to notify the coaching legend that he would be fired. They had an attorney notify him by phone.
News of the scandal broke in mid-November. Less than two months later, Paterno was dead and sports fans were left to weigh the great coach's won-lost record against his reticence in reporting the alleged criminal behavior of his good friend and fellow coach. No one will deny that Paterno was a giant among those who teach football for a living. They may, however, wonder if he was indeed willing to trade his soul to add a few more wins to his bottom line.
And little College Station, Pa., the place Paterno helped turn into "Happy Valley," will never be the same.
Doctors say it was lung cancer that ended Joe Paterno's life, an agressive form of the disease that became fatal only 65 days after being diagnosed. There are, however, those who think otherwise.
"You can die of heartbreak," Paterno's friendly rival Bobby Bowden, who carved his own legend at Florida State University, told The Associated Press. "Joe had some heartbreak, too."