Joe Paterno became the head coach of the Nittany Lions 40 years before I arrived on campus. I started my career as a Penn State student in June of 2006. Justin Timberlake had just brought sexy back, and Bobby Abreu was a Philadelphia Phillie. I spent most of that summer sleeping through my 8 a.m. English 15 class and convincing delivery drivers to buy my friends and I bottles of Vladimir vodka. But, of all the things I learned that first semester away from home, the simplest was the extent to which Joe Paterno deserved my respect.
The university doesn’t issue a textbook or require a seminar so you can pick up on what Paterno means to the Penn State community. There’s no exam or extracurricular meeting in the HUB for everyone to analyze his impact, and it isn’t spelled out for us in the student handbook. Those measures weren’t—and aren’t—necessary because what he represents to the Penn State family is easily ascertained from spending 20 seconds on the school’s campus.
Stores downtown are lined with cardboard cutouts of the man. At the Creamery, students line up to taste his greatness. Our library bears his name. Joe Paterno helped turn a small agricultural college into an athletic and academic powerhouse with a massive alumni association, more than 40,000 current students, and a reputation for striving to be the best. What he means to the university wasn’t taught, but was easily learned.
Last night, Onward State reported that Joe Paterno had passed away from health complications related to lung cancer. Then, CBS reported it and everyone on the Internet reacted accordingly. Players were tweeting pictures of themselves with the coach on their signing days. Current and former students and members of the community gathered at the statue built in his likeness outside of Beaver Stadium, a facility he might as well have built with his own two hands. By the time I arrived, a dozen or so candles lay at JoePa’s feet. Arm in arm, swaying side to side, those gathered sang the school’s alma mater while some took turns praying. Hats and t-shirts and banners and signs filled the area students had shoveled out on the east side of the stadium. People wept.
Then, the Associated Press tweeted that a spokesman for the Paterno family denied reports that Joe had died. Joe’s sons Jay and Scott later tweeted that their father was still fighting and thanked the world for the thoughts and prayers they had received. Murmurs of the false reports trickled through the growing crowd at Paterno’s statue as everyone frantically refreshed their Twitter feeds and called friends and family to see what was being reported online.
Someone yelled out what many of us had already gathered: Joe Paterno was still alive. The crowd cheered. “We Are … ” chants immediately lifted the spirits of the students, now hundreds of them, shivering in the cold to show support for a coach that first came to the university more than six decades ago.
This morning, Joe Paterno did die at the age of 85. He was hooked up to a ventilator, but did not wish to be kept alive through artificial means. Friends and family members were called in to say their good-byes.
Through being in State College for the false reports of his death, and now the verified ones, I’ve realized that the most basic thing I ever learned while attending Penn State is the most difficult to articulate to people who don’t already understand it: Joe Paterno deserves more respect than most people willingly offer. That doesn’t mean he’s infallible or incapable of wrong-doing. It means that Paterno was a good man who had a profound, immeasurable impact on a community, and he deserves recognition for that.
Regardless of how anyone feels about his actions, or inaction, in one particular instance, it is important for people to realize that that one issue, while it may now be the first thing people think about when they hear his name, isn’t the beginning and end of the story of a coach who epitomized the ideas of selflessness and honor during a lifetime of service to a higher-learning institution and its community. Joe Paterno simply made Penn State a better place and Penn Staters better people. If you don’t already know that, chances are you never will.
Before the news of the allegations against Jerry Sandusky, it was perceived that Penn State held itself to a higher standard. It was perceived that at Penn State, integrity and candor held sway. It was perceived that Penn Staters knew the importance of rectitude and morality. Well, let me be the first to tell you that this scandal didn’t un-teach those things.
Joe Paterno has been quoted as saying, “They ask me what I’d like written about me when I’m gone. I hope they write I made Penn State a better place, not just that I was a good football coach.”
Joe Paterno made Penn State a better place. He was more than just a good football coach.