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A Look at Joe Paterno's Complicated Legacy


With the passing of Joe Paterno over the weekend, many people are struggling to put his career in perspective. On one hand, he was a rare coach who won without ever getting caught up in a big NCAA scandal--a rarity in college football these days--but on the other, his legacy will foreever be tarnished by the horrific Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal.

So we asked our Athlon editors (who know more about college football than most people have forgotten) to look back on JoePa's complicated career.

By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman

Joe Paterno’s legacy has been completely tarnished because of his role in the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. There aren’t many acts that could have ruined the reputation of the Penn State legend with 400+ wins, but repeatedly being an enabler to a pedophile is one of them. That’s a harsh reality, and it feels uncomfortable to write. But it is reality, even if many Nittany Lions and others around college football are choosing to ignore it.

The quotes from some media and college football coaches calling Paterno “classy” and “a great man” ring very hollow because of what we now know. His choice to cover up for a child molester in order to protect the interests of a business/football program is sick and disturbing. That type of behavior does not fall under the category of “people make mistakes” or “I’ll just choose to remember the positives”.

Many people will says those words this week in regards to Paterno, but that’s just putting your head in the sand for fear of facing a tough reality. It’s difficult for Penn State fans, ex-players or just fans of football to see their belief system crushed, and many will be in denial over what happened on the Penn State campus. Joe Paterno did some amazing things on the football field, but unfortunately his legacy will now be the repeated enabling of a sick pedophile. Success with honor? Not so much.

By Braden Gall (@BradenGall

January 22, 2012 was a sad day for many college football, Big Ten and Penn State fans. I, personally, never would have thought I would be writing stories this season about the firing and death of a legend. In fact, it was an extremely surreal experience hosting my radio show on November 9, the day Paterno was classlessly (albeit justifiably) fired via phone, and then again on Sunday. The winningest coach of all-time was not a perfect man — no man is — and his mistakes will, rightly so, never be forgotten. There will be a portion of the population that will never be able to hold respect for Joe Paterno ever again, and I would never try to convince them otherwise. His final legacy will be debated until the end of time. But Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports pinpointed my feelings precisely on a day that "piling on" was totally unnecessary. Sunday was a day to have respect for the dead (and his loved ones) and to honor a man whose 70 years of good still dramatically outweighed the year(s) of bad:

"Paterno reached too many, taught too many, inspired too many. And for years and seasons, for decades and generations to come, those that drew from his wisdom will pass it on and on. That will be his most lasting legacy. No, his worst day can’t be forgotten. Neither can all the beautiful ones that surrounded it."

Joe Paterno's legacy as arguably the greatest college football coach to ever live is absolutely tarnished, but will never be erased.

BySteven Lassan (@AthlonSteven

The final chapter of Joe Paterno’s career was certainly not how most pictured his tenure at Penn State would end. Just over a week after earning the Division I record with his 409th win, Paterno’s tenure came to an abrupt end as the Penn State board of trustees fired him as a result of the ongoing Jerry Sandusky investigation. While the final chapter will certainly leave a mark on Paterno’s career, there’s no question he is one of college football’s icons and a coaching legend.

Considering the win-now mentality, coaches are afforded very little time to build a program. And college football may not see a coach spend 46 years at one school and earn 409 wins at one stop again. Another remarkable note about Paterno’s career at Penn State was the fact he never ran into any major trouble with the NCAA and his teams were near the top of the nation in graduation rates. Some are certainly going to remember Paterno for the surprising end to his tenure, but I think most will remember him for the 409 wins and being one of college football’s most influential coaches.

By Nathan Rush

Joe Paterno may have left a dark cloud lingering over Happy Valley — in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex scandal — but the 85-year-old was undeniably the architect of something bigger than himself, once upon a time. There was a "Great Experiment" and a "Penn State Way" that were personified by the wavy-haired Brooklyn native who wore thick-rimmed glasses, a blue tie, rolled up khakis and black sneakers. More than the 409 wins and two national championships, JoePa's legacy will be defined by the countless lives he impacted — including all Penn Staters, his decades of Nittany Lion players, young coaches around the country and, yes, the victims of Sandusky, if in fact Paterno knew what he appears to have known about the actions of his longtime defensive coordinator. Even in defeat, Paterno taught us all several valuable lessons that are as timeless as the classics he once studied at Brown. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. Do the right thing, even if no one is watching. In the end, the truth will come to light. Joe Paterno was a tragic hero whose story — both rise and fall — will be told for generations to come.

By Rob Doster (@athlondoster)

As a kid, I preferred my football southern-fried, so I tended to dismiss the guys in the boring blue-and-white uniforms and their odd-looking little coach in his bulky black-rimmed glasses as little more than a regional curiosity that had no business on the field with the Alabamas of the world. That perception eroded as Joe Paterno and his program elbowed their way into the college football elite, asking only for an opportunity to prove they belonged and then delivering over and over on the big stage. Dismissal gave way to grudging respect, and finally to outright admiration for the Penn State Way. Sadly, Paterno leaves a complicated legacy tarnished by scandal. But in the immediate aftermath of a man's death, I prefer to focus on the positives, and there were plenty of those. Rest in peace, Joe Pa.

By Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch

Joe Paterno roamed the sidelines in the first college football game that I remember watching. I was seven years old, dressed in crimson pants, an Alabama t-shirt and an Alabama cowboy hat. It was the 1979 Sugar Bowl, featuring No. 1 Penn State vs. the No. 2 Crimson Tide.

We had recently moved to New Jersey, and my parents hosted a party to watch the game that would end up settling the national title. Seemingly all of my parents’ friends were fans of Penn State, which at that time was basically the home team for college football fans in North Jersey.

We were fans of the Tide. My dad, a 1961 Alabama grad, hung a Bear Bryant poster in my room while I was still in a crib. He was eager to show his new friends in the Northeast what SEC football was all about. Read the rest here