Michaux: Paterno a great coach, great man

In some ways, we all live for the obituary lede.

It is impossible to encapsulate a human’s life in one sentence, but that’s the system of remembrance we’ve created. All too often, all the good deeds of someone’s life can be hijacked by one tragic lapse in the obit lede.

Joe Paterno deserves better than that. His lasting memory should dig deeper than our last memory of his career.

Joe Paterno, whose 409 victories at Penn State are more than any other collegiate head football coach in history, died Sunday morning. He was 85.

Paterno, who coached in State College, Pa., for 62 seasons, 46 of them as head coach, passed away after a brief battle with lung cancer.

Paterno, the only active head coach to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2007, was credited with winning two national championships even though he led his teams to four additional undefeated seasons.

Paterno, whose “Grand Experiment” of demanding academics be as valued as athletics led to consistently exceptional graduation rates among Nittany Lions football student-athletes throughout his tenure, lived a little more than two months after coaching his last victory.

Paterno, who contributed more than $4 million to support academics at the university and spear-headed the fund-raising efforts for the library expansion than bears his name, inspired mourning among his legion of fans who consider “JoePa” the heart and soul of Penn State.

Paterno, devoted husband of almost 50 years to his wife, Sue, and father of five Penn State graduates, leaves behind 17 grandchildren.

Seriously, there are so many different ways you could choose to illustrate Paterno’s life and legacy.

Paterno, who coached 78 first-team All-Americans and sent more than 350 players to the NFL including 33 first-round draft picks ...

Paterno, who devoted his entire life and career to college athletics and the development of the young men who played for him ...

Paterno, who turned down a $1.4 million offer in 1973 to coach the NFL’s Patriots to keep his $35,000 job at Penn State ...

Paterno, who was named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year in 1986 days before the Nittany Lions beat arrogant Miami in the Fiesta Bowl to earn his second national championship ...

Paterno, a two-way football star at the Ivy League’s Brown who got sidetracked into coaching at a “cow college” on his way to law school at Boston University ... 

Paterno, whose belief in team above all was displayed by the plain blue jerseys with no names on the back and white helmets with no logos ...

Of course, the Associated Press obituary that will appear in most media outlets around the world, led with a compound description in its lede reporting the coach’s death.

Joe Paterno, the longtime Penn State coach who won more American football games than anyone in major college history but was fired amid a child sex abuse scandal that scarred his reputation for winning with integrity, died Sunday. He was 85.

In my opinion, this is a dreadful tribute in so many ways. It applies equal weight to the final moments of his career as it did to the preceding 84 years. And it leaves the wrong impression that Paterno was the subject of the “child sex scandal.”

That Paterno should be forever tarnished by the despicable actions of a former assistant coach is grossly unjust. Make no mistake, Paterno failed to do everything within his power to report the alleged actions by Jerry Sandusky that were brought to his attention by a former quarterback and graduate assistant who witnessed one of the assaults. He passed the information to his superiors and trusted their poor judgment to take care of it.

Paterno admitted as much himself in the immediate wake of the revelations from the multiple grand jury charges against Sandusky.

“It is one of the great sorrows of my life,” Paterno said. “I wish I had done more.”

Penn State had no other choice but to force Paterno from his head coaching position (although it handled it in the most ham-handed fashion). A change needed to be made. A message needed to be sent that everyone in the university’s administration had the moral obligation to do more than it did.

But Paterno shouldn’t be held more accountable than anyone else in that mess. He paid a price for his inaction. But he should be remembered for his actions.

Paterno’s legacy for a lifetime of good deeds, strong service and admirable leadership should not be destroyed by the monstrous actions of someone else who betrayed his and everyone else’s trust.

Paterno was not infallible. None of us are. But he lived his life more admirably than most.

Joe Paterno was a great coach and a great man. In the end, that’s how he should be remembered and not by how it ended. 

 

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