For the past year, Joe Paterno’s name has invoked a range of emotions, both good and bad.
It’s still difficult to get a good read on his image and his legacy, which remains tarnished as Tuesday’s one-year anniversary of his death approaches.
Paterno’s rapid fall from grace remains one of the swiftest in sports history.
The former Penn State football coach died from complications of lung cancer on Jan. 22, 2012 — a little more than two months after being fired in the aftermath of child sex abuse charges against Jerry Sandusky, his former defensive coordinator.
Since his death, Paterno’s once sterling reputation has taken quite a beating, at least nationally.
I, like many, still wrestle with what Paterno knew and when he knew it. Unfortunately, we probably will never know those answers, even though three top administrators — Graham Spanier, Gary Schultz and Tim Curley — are awaiting trial on charges linked to the Sandusky scandal.
“For the guys who played for Joe Paterno or coached for him, and knew him on a more intimate basis, his legacy is not tarnished,” said former Penn State linebacker Tim Sweeney, who recently completed his three-year term as president of the Penn State Football Letterman’s Club. “Nobody feels any differently than they have, from 12 months ago to 30 years ago.
“I think its comments by (NCAA president) Mark Emmert and the NCAA that have hurt Joe the most. They tried to tarnish his legacy and have been somewhat successful on a national level. As for the Penn State community, we all still have good feelings for Joe. I don’t think they were ever lost.”
In the past 12 months, Paterno’s name and likeness have been removed from just about everything but the library on campus that was named for he and his wife, Sue, who donated $4 million to help fund the project.
Paterno’s name was stripped from the Big Ten championship trophy. His alma mater, Brown University, took his name off an award that was given to the top male freshman athlete since 1993. Paternoville was renamed Nittanyville.
On June 22, Sandusky was convicted on 45 of 48 counts at a highly-charged Centre County Courthouse in Bellefonte. He is serving 30-60 years in prison.
A few weeks later, the Freeh report took dead aim at Paterno, saying he and Penn State’s other high-ranking officials "repeatedly concealed critical facts" in the case against Sandusky.
The NCAA wiped out 111 of Paterno’s 409 wins, toppling him from his perch as the winningest major college coach in NCAA history. Penn State also was hit with a four-year bowl ban, a reduction of scholarships and a $60 million fine.
In wake of the Freeh report, Nike took Paterno’s name off its world headquarters child care center in Oregon. And Paterno’s statue was removed from a grassy area outside Beaver Stadium and stowed away in a secret place.
“Before everything happened, (coach Paterno) was viewed as such a great guy and this and that, and people talked about how much he had done for college football and how he was a legend,” said former Penn State wide receiver Derek Moye, who spent some time on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ practice squad as a rookie last season and recently signed a contract for next year.
“And now if you mention his name, you get a mixed reaction. Some people love him and other people talk about him like he’s Jerry Sandusky. It’s almost like Joe’s gone, like he’s forgotten about. It’s kind of sad, because he did so much for the university and so much for Penn State football. A lot of people he was there for are no longer there for him.
“I can’t imagine where Penn State football would be now without him. That being said, I think it’s going to be tough (for Joe to regain his reputation) just because of the nature of what happened. The last year has been crazy. It’s a year everybody would like to forget.”
Scandals involving high-profile individuals are not new to sports. Lance Armstrong, Manti Te’o, Bobby Petrino, Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant, Tonya Harding, O.J. Simpson, Marion Jones, Barry Bonds and Pete Rose quickly come to mind.
A good many of them recovered, at least to some extent, following their downfalls. But Paterno, who was still coaching at the unheard age of 84 in 2011, never got a second chance.
Mike Meade, a former Penn State fullback who went on to play two seasons each with the NFL’s Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions in the 1980s, said Paterno did more good than harm during his 62 years on the Penn State coaching staff, including the final 46 as head coach.
“People were in an outrage after the Freeh report came out and everybody wanted to bury Joe because it seemed at the time like the right thing to do for those negative people that wanted to hold him accountable,” said Meade, a sales consultant from Dover, Del., who was among more than 400 people interviewed by the Freeh task force.
“I think some people have woke up in the last year and are now on Joe’s side,” Meade said. “Are there others who will never forgive him in their lifetime? Absolutely. There are some people who basically made it seem like it was Paterno’s fault. He did nothing wrong. I think he reported the allegations to his bosses and he thought they were going to take care of it.
“I have no place in my life for a child molester. I don’t think anybody does. At some point, people need to point the finger directly at Jerry Sandusky and leave Joe Paterno alone.”
Former Penn State running back Jon Williams, who was a member Paterno’s first national championship team in 1982 and spent one year with the New England Patriots, credits Bill O’Brien with helping restore some of Penn State’s good football reputation, as well as Paterno’s, this past season.
On Tuesday, Williams will be thinking of Paterno on a day that already has special significance for him. His daughter Laurenn’s birthday falls on Jan. 22.
“Joe Paterno is part of my legacy, the reason I am where I am today,” said Williams, who works in corporate sales for FedEx in Norton, Mass. “I was very sad to see what happened to the Penn State football program and to coach Paterno, and I feel sorry for all the kids and families who were involved.
“But I believe what Bill O’Brien is doing now is going to help coach Paterno’s legacy in the long run because we live in a very forgiving society.”
I can’t forsee any scenario in the future where Paterno will be hailed as the icon he once was. But the day likely will come when he is remembered more for what he did than what he didn’t do.