“Believe deep down in your heart that you’re destined to do great things,” said the hallowed Penn State Coach Joe Paterno.
As far as I could ever tell, during my formative years growing up in Pittsburgh, Pa., the only thing that ever did tie the two sides of the state together was Joe Paterno.
Of course no one called him that. Everyone called him Joe Pa. He was a father figure for the state. People lived, breathed and died Joe Pa. With honor, virtue and sheer will, he was a leader of the state’s largest academic institution for more than half a century, raising funds for a new library (which was named after him), funding numerous scholarships and helping Penn State break countless athletic records on and off the field.
From Happy Valley — smack dab in the center of Pennsylvania — Joe Pa unified the keystone state unlike any single person in the past century. If you pass through Pittsburgh, Philadelphia or Harrisburg, you’ll see his quotes and image — the punchy little coach clad in thick-rimmed glasses and jet black shoes — adorned on T-shirts, signs, coffee mugs and everything in between.
In a state that loves its football — home to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Philadelphia Eagles, Dan Marino and Joe Montana — it loved Joe Pa most of all.
Perhaps because he was about much more than just football. The coach who valued academics above athletics was known better among his players and peers for his life lessons than for his five undefeated seasons, his more-than-400 wins or his Hall of Fame status.
As former Penn State linebacker Matt Millin put it: “My first thoughts about Joe are not as a coach because he was well beyond that. He was an educator and a teacher. He taught lessons — some about football, mostly about life.”
But as most of us already know, Joe Pa’s life took a drastic turn late last year. The man who was known for saying, “The minute you think you’ve got it made, disaster is just around the corner,” maybe could have guessed something ominous was lurking ahead.
Seven days after the fabled coach’s 409th victory — making him the winningest coach in Division I college football history — on Nov. 5, 2011, he was swallowed up by a child molestation scandal when a former assistant, Jerry Sandusky, was arrested for allegedly raping eight boys over 15 years.
Through the indictment, it came out that late one Friday evening in 2002 then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary said he had witnessed an act of molestation in the Penn State locker room. Extremely upset, McQueary went to Joe Pa’s house to tell him what he witnessed.
According to the grand jury transcript, the next day Joe Pa called his immediate superior, Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley, to report what his graduate assistant had witnessed. Approximately 10 days later, the graduate assistant was called to a meeting with Curley and Penn State Senior Vice President Gary Schultz, who was responsible for overseeing the campus police. The two assured McQueary they would look into the matter, although what exactly McQueary told them was disputed in court. McQueary was told two weeks later that Sandusky’s keys to the locker room were taken away and the accusation was reported to The Second Mile, the foster care charity Sandusky founded in 1977.
Joe Pa later met with Schultz and Curley to rearticulate the incident. The grand jury found that neither police nor child welfare agencies were notified and school officials didn’t attempt to identify the boy. Everything after that digresses into a he-said she-said state of affairs.
There’s no doubt Paterno was responsible in reporting the incident on a profession level. And there’s little doubt that if he went above the heads of his higher-ups, he would have been in major professional trouble. But as the editorial board from central Pennsylvania’s Patriot-News wrote, “A man who had preached responsibility and integrity for his entire life merely did what the law required. He fell far short of what morality and humanity demanded.”
When the news of the incident spiraled into the national spotlight, Curley went on leave, Schultz retired, long-time university President Graham Spanier resigned and Paterno said he’d resign at the end of the season. But a month later, Penn State’s trustees decided to fire the school’s legendary hero in cowardly fashion: over the phone.
Yet Paterno still held himself to a higher standard than everyone else involved. While school officials were pointing fingers at everyone else, Joe Pa blamed himself for not doing more.
“This is a tragedy,” Joe Pa said soon after the indictment. “It is one of the greatest sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”
As the Patriot-News editors put it: “Even as everyone from university leaders and trustees to Sandusky himself maintain they did absolutely nothing wrong, Paterno alone voiced deep regret at his own actions.”
Soon after the Sandusky incident came to light, an aggressive form of cancer took hold of Paterno.
This past Sunday, Jan. 22, 2012, Joe Pa died at age 85.
Many speculate he died from stress — heavy media scrutiny, the withdrawal of a proposed presidential Medal of Freedom, the backhanded nature of being fired over the phone after more than 60 years of service and, of course, the internal abyss of feeling one could have done more to save innocent children from a sexual predator. According to Joe Pa’s son, the doctors said he died from a sudden form of lung cancer, but some say he simply died of heartache.
The man who “walked the walk” his entire life made one huge slip near the end, and couldn’t seem to get back up. Despite tarnishing his perfect image, his soaring words and unprecedented track record will never fail to inspire millions of athletes, students and citizens across Pennsylvania and the U.S.
“He was a tremendous teacher. Not because he knew all of the answers, but because he challenged us to find the answers for ourselves,” said Tom Bradley, Joe Pa’s assistant, about the man he called “Coach.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected]