Matt Lewis

Lessons from Joe Paterno’s destroyed legacy at Penn State

At some point during the Penn State scandal, someone probably tried to comfort Joe Paterno by telling him: “You’re the winningest football coach in history. They can’t take that away from you.”

Alas, they did. Every Nittany Lion victory from 1998 to 2012 has been wiped out.

He was literally put on a pedestal during his lifetime. But just as Saddam Huessein’s Firdos Square statue was toppled in 2003, “JoPa’s” statue has also met a similar fate in 2012 — another victim of a destroyed legacy and destroyed lives.

To be sure, much has already been written about this topic, and I have no desire to rehash what other writers have said. But I can’t help thinking one lesson is that we are often judged by our worst moments (this is especially true of leaders — football coaches, business leaders, pastors, etc. — but it’s true of all of us.)

Paterno clearly had some very good qualities. He, no doubt, inspired his players. He was a good husband who lived in a fairly modest home on campus. Unlike some coaches, he stressed academic excellence.

His was a sin of omission. He tolerated evil. He looked the other way.

How many of us justify inaction (albeit, regarding less egregious incidents) by rationalizing that we weren’t the ones responsible? When you’re a bystander, that’s wrong. But when you’re the leader, it’s an unacceptable abdication of responsibility. Doing the right thing entails more than simply avoiding overt acts of evil — it also requires stopping such beastly acts when they are brought to one’s attention.

Paterno clearly felt no compunction to honor the doctrine of in loco parentis, and that now defines his legacy, undermining any of the virtuous things he might have done during his career.

Life is not about counting up the totality of one’s acts, as if having committed a larger number of acts of kindness will balance the indiscretions. Sometimes it’s the big things people remember, despite everything else. For this reason, Bill Buckner is unfairly tagged as the guy who let a ground ball roll between his legs during the world series. And fair or not, Joe Paterno will always be the coach who looked the other way when little kids were abused.

This should also serve as a warning to get out when you’re on top. Paterno spent 46 years at Penn State. Wouldn’t 30 have been enough? The best case scenario is that a younger, sharper Joe Paterno wouldn’t have tolerated Jerry Sandusky’s behavior. (Maybe that’s wishful thinking?) Regardless, had Paterno simply retired on his own terms, sooner, he would likely have avoided this fate. There is a danger in hanging around too long.

When they are still applauding, it’s time to get off the stage.