As macabre as this sounds, it may be time to start the Joe Paterno Death Watch. Metaphorically, JoePa died last Wednesday, when Penn State’s board of trustees fired the legendary football coach for not having done enough to stop the alleged rapes and other sexual abuse of children by former assistant Jerry Sandusky.
Paterno turns 85 next month. Penn State football has been his life for 61 years—the last 46 as head coach. With that wrested from him, and with the expected dismissal of his entire staff, it’s conceivable that Paterno will depart more than the athletic field. And sooner rather than later.
The situation is not without precedent. For some men of national stature, particularly those whose level of excellence has endured for decades, their work defines their being. When that ends, for whatever reason, their bodies give up, sometimes in a matter of weeks.
On Dec. 29, 1982, after Alabama beat the University of Illinois in the Liberty Bowl, reporters asked Bear Bryant, the fabled Crimson Tide coach, what he planned to do in his new retirement. His reply: “Probably croak in a week.” Four weeks later, he died from a massive heart attack at age 69. Beloved Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, for whom the Super Bowl trophy is named, was hired by the Washington Redskins in 1969. Eight months after the ’69 season, he died of colon cancer. He was 57.
More recently, 60 Minutes curmudgeon Andy Rooney did his last broadcast on Oct. 2, 2011. Four weeks later, he died at 92 from complications following minor surgery. Less than 18 months earlier, Rooney had said he planned to work at the CBS newsmagazine until he dropped dead. “What else would I do?” he asked.
For an aging Joe Paterno, Penn State football was pure oxygen. The power of his position more than compensated for the increasing frailty of his body. Like Rooney, he probably believed he would go on forever, a Happy Valley deity. As long as he had the job, nothing else mattered.
I’m the winningest coach in major-college football history and I’m 84 years old. You got a problem with that?
The lives of at least eight little boys, some now young men, were shattered by Paterno’s former top assistant during his alleged reign of terror. Regardless of the final verdict, Paterno has to know that his failure to act with moral integrity will forever stain what would have been a mythic legacy.
The question is, how long can he stay alive with that stain? Absent the power and the glory, don’t be surprised if Paterno finally starts acting his age, setting the stage for his final exit.