SALT LAKE CITY — The day they fired Joe Paterno, I turned to my wife and told her the coach would be dead inside a year. I was way off. It was 74 days.
He was diagnosed with cancer two days after he lost his job.
I had no idea he was sick of course; I only suspected that without the lifeline of coaching and work — and a man like Paterno needed both like he needed oxygen — he would go into steep decline.
Who works until they're 85?
My grandfather coached high school sports for 40 years. He died months after retirement. I never thought it was a coincidence. He returned as a substitute teacher and collapsed right there in math class. Coaching — or whatever it is you do for work, especially if you define yourself by it — can get in your blood and sustain you.
I don't wonder if Paterno would have lived longer if he had still had football or if it hadn't been snatched away from him.
If a tragedy is defined — as it is by one dictionary — as a literary work in which the main character is brought to ruin or suffers deep sorrow because of some tragic flaw or an inability to cope with difficult circumstances, then his story was tragedy. The ending seemed written right out of the genre.
But in dying, Paterno was spared the legal drama, the court appearances, answering questions for which he had no real answers, the crowds of reporters, the endless interviews, the TV cameras, and the daily rehashing of the child-sex abuse case that was his undoing.
Ask Paterno about the 3-4 defense or the Cover 2 man-under; ask him about the zone read or the inside trap or why he didn't pass on third down. But how equipped was a man of his generation to comprehend something so perverse, bizarre and foreign as child sex abuse?
I was never all that convinced that he was protecting Penn State as much as he was simply confused and overwhelmed by the enormity and perversity of the accusations. The criminal acts must have been as foreign to him as the surface of the moon. Whoever heard of such a thing? This was a man who lived simply and by all the old rules. The endless questions and the legal machinations would have been torture for him. That was no way to go out.
I think — hope — that death will put things in perspective. For 62 years he coached at Penn State — 46 as head coach. He won a record 409 games and two national championships, and he did it the right way, running a program that was as no-nonsense as the plain uniforms he insisted they wear while other teams were mixing and matching outfits like divas.
He emphasized integrity, academics and discipline. He was as square as his sideline attire — black shoes, rolled up khakis, tie and Coke-bottle thick glasses — an island of old-fashioned sensibilities. He didn't run off to the NFL or to another school for a bigger paycheck after each championship made him a hot commodity, the way coaches do now. Off the field, he and his wife Sue donated more than $4 million to the school and funded the library that is named after them.
Surely all this will outweigh his failures.
Like so many driven men, his strength was his weakness. He lived and breathed football. He loved the game and everything about it, so much so that maybe he failed to see the big picture when the allegations were passed along to him, or at least to the degree that others thought he should.
He was content with life as JoePa and never could pull himself away. Admit it: Like so many others, you thought the guy was a little annoying, hanging around so long. He struck you as someone who overstayed his welcome. But it was what he knew and loved, and he did it well.
LaVell Edwards, the 81-year-old former BYU coaching great, has been retired for 11 years, and he is four years younger than Paterno. While Edwards easily moved into the next phase of his life — serving a mission for his church, doting on grandkids, working on his golf game, traveling — Paterno was still running (OK, not running) around a football field.
Over time that's what people should remember. Sports fans are quick to forgive. They forgave Kobe Bryant. They forgave Michael Vick. They will forgive JoePa and remember him, not for walking in and out of a courtroom, but as the man who stood on the Penn State sideline for six decades, wearing his tie and his rolled up trousers. At least that is my hope.
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