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Joseph: Death of Paterno brings mixed emotions (Jan. 23)

Allan Joseph | Sunday, January 22, 2012

“RIP, Joe Pa. Your legacy will never be forgotten,” one tweet said.

“In case anyone forgot: Paterno harbored a predator. Remember the victims today,” read a Facebook status.

“You don’t have to speak ill of the dead. But you don’t necessarily have to speak nicely of them, either,” another tweet said in an attempt to strike a middle ground.

While social media rarely provides us with an opportunity for serious reflection, the Internet’s reaction to the news of former Penn State coach Joe Paterno’s death on Sunday struck at a difficult conflict: how to best celebrate, mourn and remember a man who for decades was seen as a paragon of moral conduct in a difficult world — until he was unceremoniously fired in the midst of the worst scandal in the history of college athletics.

Many will choose to remember Paterno for the years of service he gave the Penn State community. The Brooklyn native spent 62 consecutive years at Penn State, 46 of which as head coach. In that time, Paterno single-handedly built the Nittany Lions’ proud football tradition, overseeing Beaver Stadium’s growth from a 46,000-seat to a 106,000-seat behemoth and collecting more wins than any other coach in history in the process.

Off the field, though, Paterno was a father figure in the State College community, donating huge sums of money to Penn State and serving as a role model and mentor to hundreds of players along the way. Penn State was long admired for “winning the right way,” and many cited Paterno as the driving force behind that ethos.

To those, Paterno will be a legendary figure whose career was far bigger than the incident that brought it to an end.

Others will not be able to see past the ignominious end to Paterno’s career. While we will never know what exactly Paterno knew and what he was told, many will see his actions as inexcusable, for he certainly did not aggressively investigate Jerry Sandusky when the assistant coach was accused of systematically molesting young boys. Paterno’s image of old-fashioned, clean-cut values seems nothing more than a cruel facade, a veneer over a man who was too caught up in his own cult of personality to think he could do any wrong. To these, Paterno’s name will forever be linked with a horrifying series of events that far outweigh any of his accomplishments on or off the football field.

Both of these viewpoints are too extreme. The one is too generous to Paterno, viewing the Sandusky scandal as nothing more than a speed bump; the other is too harsh, discarding decades of Paterno’s good deeds on account of one event. We should not forget the impact Paterno had on Penn State, as it’s pretty clear that he was a longtime force for good in State College. The fiery coach served as an ambassador for the university as a whole and in many ways was responsible for a large part of Penn State’s growth as a university over six decades.

It is precisely because of all of his good work, however, that Paterno’s downfall is so painful. It reminds us that even the best of us make mistakes, and that sometimes those mistakes can be just as painful and horrible as they were honest.

So as we mourn Joe Paterno, yes, we celebrate his legacy. Yes, we remember the victims of the sexual-abuse crisis. But most of all, we mourn the mistakes he made.