Joe Paterno: What will his legacy be?

Jan 23, 2012

Joe Paterno, a sainted figure at Penn State for almost half a century but scarred forever by the scandal involving his one-time heir apparent, died Sunday at age 85.

Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins, who recently sat down with Joe Paterno for an exclusive interview, was online to discuss the legacy of the former Penn State football coach.

Hi all, welcome to the chat.  Sorry I'm a little late.

Sally, thanks for the chat. I was saddened to hear the loss of Coach Paterno over the weekend. Was his cancer diagnosed before the "Sandusky Affair" came to light?

As I understand it, Joe Paterno announced he had been  diagnosed with small cell lung cancer about nine days after he was fired as head coach. There is a lot of talk  this morning that the university "killed" him by firing himl, but I think that is a misunderstanding of the man. Paterno was all about not letting football ruin his perspective. He didn't want Penn State to ever "become the kind of place where an 8-2 season is a tragedy." He had a ric h life apart from football, and had he been able to beat back the cancer, I'm sure he would have found a satisfying way to live without being head football coach.

You are the last reporter to have spoken to Joe Paterno. What was his lasting impression on you? Did you see any hint of legendary man we have heard so much about? Did he seem defeated?

He did not seem defeated, that's not a word I would use. he seemed frail, he had trouble speaking and breathing, but he had spark. He cracked a couple of jokes about lawyers and reporters. He still had a pretty good gleam in his eye, and a sure sense that he had done some good at Penn State. He also was obviously concerned about the Jerry Sandusky child molestation case. Distressed is the word I would use.

Joe Paterno is my hero. Unfortunately he died before he could either defend his actions or inactions, or make amends. He will always be remembered for his last known story: a scandal that ended his career and harried his death. Is there any hope that history will see it differently?

Actually, he attempted to explain himself last week in our story in the Washington Post. He addressed his action and inaction in the Sandusky case, and also addressed the whole of his career. At the time of the interview we discussed here at the paper and decided we wanted to go broad with him, and not focus soely on the Sandusky case. I'm gload now we did that --- it was the right decision given that it was his last interview.

Many critics suggest that the real problem is the deification of money-making sports at Division 1 schools, and they have a point. But where Penn State is concerned, how much of the problem was the deification of Paterno himself?

Good question. He was bronzed while he was still living. I think Paterno struggled his whole career with the problem of football glorification and knew it was dangerous. Yet I also think he was susceptible to it -- he was a very big man in a small town. He also knew it was dangerous to set yourself on declared higher moral plane than your competitors, yet he did that too.  Hey, he was human. All in all, he probably did a pretty good job of remembering he wasn't the King of England, when everyone around him treated him that way. But he wasn't perfect. He was irascible, superior. He was also genuinely decent and a bonafide educator.

You seem awfully sympathetic to Paterno. Incorrect perception on my part, or accurate? If accurate, why? Paterno can't rely on the argument that he did his duty by reporting the matter to his superiors. The chain of command at PSU began and ended with him. Imagine all those kids who would have been saved if he had decided to act on the matter swiftly.

I liked what I saw of Joe Paterno personallythough I was only around him twice, once back in about 1986 when i was a young reporter, and then last week. I didn't know him well, and certainly have all the questions others do about his action or inaction regarding Jerry Sandusky. All of which I tried to ask him last week in the interview. It's not really my goal to be sympathetic or unsympathetic, but to present Paterno's account of himself for the record. Until he spoke to the Washington Post, we didn't have Paterno's on the record account of himself and his self-justifications, and that was critical to get. I'm not sure it's fair to say the chain of command began and ended with him -- Paterno himself  disputed that. But it's of course a huge question and a very good one -- exactly how much power did he have? Could he have prevented even one child from being harmed, if Sandusky is guilty? Paterno portrayed himself as someone who did more than others, but not as much as he should have. He said he should have asked more questions of his superiors, and his explanation, when asked why he didn't, was that he was just too unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the subject matter, and trusted that his bosses knew better how to handle the accusations. Time, trials, and in-house investigations should show whether Paterno's version of himself holds up.

So, I've never been to State College, PA or really even spent much time in any of PA for that matter. I've only known Joe Paterno through his reputation. So, for me, he's forever tarnished. I have known survivors of sexual abuse - it's not just something that happens to you for a little while during your youth - it affects you for the rest of your life. He could have helped these kids and he also could have spoken out more strongly once the allegations against Sandusky were made last year. He didn't do either. Joe Pa was a great football coach, but not a great man.

I don't think "great man" was anything Paterno especially aspired to. Great teacher was his ambition. As for speaking out more strongly once Mike McQueary made the allegation against Sandusky, Paterno would have agreed with you. He often told his players he wanted them to "have guts in the clutch." Paterno did what he was supposed to when he forwarded the report against Sandusky to his superiors. But he certainly didn't satisfy himself or anyone else with his lack of follow up. As an aside, I think it's fascinating that everyone thinks they know how THEY wuld have behaved in Paterno's situation.

Not a question so much as a comment --- I don't doubt that, over time, JoePa's legacy will be of a great coach and even greater supporter of the university, his players and his family. We all recoiled when the Sandusky story first came out; I myself thought JoePa had to go at that point. But I think the pendulum is starting to swing back already.

There's no disputing that he had a terrific record as a coach and educator. His gradution rates were undeniably higher than those of most of his competitors, and bis former players adored him. As a philanthropist, he literally laid down the paving stones that built Penn State from a tiny agricultural college in the hills into a $4 billion public research university. He gave $4 million to the library and helped raise hundreds of millions more.

Sally, I know you co-wrote "A Coach's Life" with Coach Smith, do you see a lot of similarities in their careers, in the way they became almost larger than their institutions?

Dean Smith and Joe paterno shared a personal style that I think was a generational characteristic. They were inherently modest, uncomfortable with a lot of flash and fame, and enjoyed playing the role of beloved schoolteachers in small university towns. That said, they had undeniable egos, and no great competitor is without a hard streak and a certain amount of self absorption.

Did you interview other family members as well? What did they have to say about the Board of Trustees?

I spoke with four of the five Paterno children and also with his wife Sue, and they are furious with the university leaders for the way they fired Paterno, and also for the fact that there was very little outreach once Paterno announced he had cancer. President Rodney Erickson didn't call him or send so much as a get well card, according to the family. They finally heard from him when he sent a thank yuo note for a $100,000 gift Paterno gave the university last week. That sort of thing seriously upset his family. Paterno was actually the peacekeeper while I was in the house. He kept saying he didn't want to be bitter, and his relations with the school were very important to him.

Did Joe Paterno mention to you in the interview how he would like to be remembered? Did Sue Paterno or his children mention to you how they would like him to be remembered?

I asked Paterno that, and he said he wanted to be remembered as someone who was consistent, who didn't deviate from the path he set out for himself when he was a young coach, to use football as an education tool and to do things the right way. His wife Sue said, "He didn't preach one thing and then live a different way."

What was your father's personal opinion of Joe Paterno, having covered him professionally over the years?

My father didn't know him well. He wrote a piece about Paterno when he was just 41, back in 1968, which is wonderful reading now. He liked Paterno, but he also thought the whole Penn State act over the years had gotten a tad superior and holier than thou, and wasn't sure that they did things so much better than their competitors. There are lots of great football schools with committment to academics, starting with his alma mater, TCU, under Gary Patterson.

You don't think Paterno aspired to be a great man? First of all, doesn't everyone aspire to be a great person? Second of all, he claimed that wins meant nothing without honor, isnt that aspiring to be considered a great person?

I'm not sure Paterno aspired to be a "great man" in the sense of history or world events. He said his father Angelo told him, "make an impact." I do think he aspired to be a great person, in the sense of his relationships.

I don't follow football and had never heard of Joe Paterno until the Sandusky child rapes were revealed. So to me, Paterno's legacy is that of a man who valued his friendship with a child rapist more than he valued helpless children. His reputation for honor and integrity? Hypocrisy and cowardice.

This is certainlythe other view of Paterno, and only time and the criminal trials will sort out how he should be viewed. By Paterno's own account, he and Sandusky were not close personal friends -- Sandusky was younger and they didn't socialize outside of the office. Also, by the time of the 2002 Mike McQueary allegation Sandusky hadn't worked for Paterno for three years. Paterno claimed he couldn't remember the last time he had seen or spoken to Sandusky. As for Sandusky's access to campus, it was part of his employment-retirement contract with the university that he got an office with keys, it apparently wasn't something that Paterno personally granted him. Look, you view Paterno one of two ways, either a decent person who established a pretty good record for ethics over 61 years, who fufilled his duty in 2002 when he reported to his superiors but could have done more, or yuou view him as described in this question, as a hypocrit who participated in a coverup.

If Paterno wanted to be remembered as "consistent", then explain why he was willing to trample over university procedures to protect football players who got in trouble -- but hid behind university procedures to defend his horrible failure to protect young boys from a predatory rapist in their midst?

This is a good question, and one I asked him. He claimed that he didn't interfere in university procedures despite everyone's assumption that he had and used that kind of power. He said, "I went the way the university wanted to go." That was his answer for what it's worth. And by the way, KMike McQueary testified that he did not describe a child rape to Paterno, he couldn't bring himself to be specific with him out of deference to his age. McQueary and Paterno's accounts of the conversation are consistent with each other on that point. Both agree that McQueary described something sexual in nature, and Paterno agreed he should have followed up more aggressively. Apparently he did follow up with McQueary, asking him if he knew where matters stood. But he didn't follow up with his superiors, and wished he had asked, "Where are we with this?"

If back in 2002Joe Paterno had pursued the allegations against Sandusky as vigorously as some people now believe he should have -- bearing in mind that he only had hearsay, not actual eyewitness knowledge -- wouldn't he likely have been treated then like a querulous old man, and perhaps ignored as a pest, or sacked?

Well, I don't know that he would have seemed like a crank. But I do think that Paterno was in a somewhat complicated position. If he called the university vice president, it could have appeared that he was intervening on Sandusky's behalf. Or it could have appeared that he was convinced of Sandusky's guilt. According to Paterno, he wanted the inquiry to be objective and didn't want to be seen as interfering. It's one thing to interfere on behalf of a player who got into a bar fight and say, "Let me handle him." It's another to interfere when someone is accused of child molestation.

I enjoyed your interview with him and am a life-long fan. (You don't grow up in Central PA and NOT become a fan.) Many of us thought that once Joe left coaching, he wouldn't live much longer. I suspect that the stress of the scandal hastened his demise. Did you have any inkling when you met that his condition was as grave as it apparently was?

It was apparent that the chemo had hit him very hard, and he was laboring to breathe, and wasn't able to eat. I think Paterno felt he was failing, and wanted to get the interview on the record while he could.

Following up on the diagnosis right after he was fired, he strikes me as the type who wouldn't have taken the time during the season to see the doctor. Probably figured whatever was bothering him was minor and could wait until after football season. Any thoughts about that?

I hadn't thought about that, but it's a good point.

I think most of us will never be satisfied with Paterno's actions/inactions re: the Sandusky case. Your column this weekend spoke perfectly to the notion that we all have feet of clay. Oh we beat our chests and say how we would have responded but the truth is we never know how we'll respond until that time comes. It was eminently clear from your interview that Paterno found his response lacking, his excuse feeble, and it grieved him. But maybe that's just me wanting to view someone as I would want to be viewed. Thank you for your work on the initial interviews and your excellent column after his death.

Thanks for the comment. I don't know that Paterno felt his excuse was entirely feeble, but he certainly was grieved that he hadn't pursued the matter with the university leaders after he handed the allegation to them.

Ms. Jenkins, did you ask coach Paterno why he waited 24 hours to notify his supervisors? Why did McQuarry wait 24 hours to notify Paterno? Did coach Paterno say why he didn't rush out to make sure that that 10 year old boy was not still being abused Sandusky? Thats where I feel both McQuarry and Paterno failed in not putting the child first and passing it on to someone else to stop.

Yes, Paterno's answer to the 24 hour issue was that he told McQueary, "You did what you were supposed to do, and now I have think about what to do." He said he wanted to be sure he knew what he was doing. Some people will wonder what there was to think about -- why didn't he go straight to the p0lice? Others find it understandable that he went to the athetic director Tim Curley and university vice president Gary Schultz, who supervised university police, and set up an interview between them and McQueary. The Pennsylvania attorney general has characterized Paterno's actions as appropriate and said that he fufilled his legal duty. It also characterized him as a cooperating witness, and Paterno's attorney says he met voluntarily with investigators for the AG's office several times.

What bothers me most about the situation is people are far too focused on what Joe Paterno "should" have done and not what Sandusky is alleged to have done. why hasn't the media followed Sandusky more closely and tried to shed more light on what happened as opposed to vilifying Joe ? Crimes were committed by Sandusky and University officials , not Joe Paterno ( and yes, i understand what moral obligation means but who decides what is morally right in this case?)

Acquaintance molesters are expert at burying themselves in communities and becoming deeply trusted and gaining access to children. The more critical question to me is, how did Sandusky pass muster with state child services and local high schools etc? Paterno is just one of hundreds of people who failed to see that there night be a child molestor in their midst. To focus on Paterno is to lose sight of the larger issue of how to protect kids from these creeps.  There is a larger dynamic here than just Paterno, and trying to fix blame solely on him doesn't seem like the most useful exercise. The main thing is to understand what happened and how, if Sandusky is guilty.

One of the criticisms I've read over and over was that when the PSU campus police didn't do more, that Joe Paterno should have reported McQueary's claims re Sandusky to the town police. First off, don't university police departments have jurisdiction over their campuses, so the town police would've just told Paterno to report it to university police. And second, in a place like University Park, isn't the PSU police department a lot larger than the town police?

I think the town and gown issue is an important one, and there are no fewer than five investigations devoted to sorting that out. The attorney general, the department of education, the in house Penn State inquiry led by Louis Freeh, and the NCAA are all looking at the structure and question of institutional control, who had it and who didn't.

There's a big difference between McQueary and Paterno. You might debate the actions of a twentysomething assistant coach but Paterno was the most powerful figure on campus, an 80+ year old man who rabidly held onto his position despite efforts to retire him. Paterno could have stepped in without fear of reprisal.

Certainly a valid point.

What has become of him? Did Paterno have any comments on his actions? Did you get a sense of how he regards him in general?

Mike McQueary is a cooperating witness who has testified before the grand jury and in a preliminary hearing. Paterno didn't express any sentiment about him one way or the other except to say that he was obviously upset when he came to see him, and that he thought McQueary had done the right thing in telling him, Paterno, that he had witnessed something in the shower room.

Can you please kill this tired trope? It's insulting to the tens of thousands of Penn State employees and contractors who have little or nothing to do with the athletic department.

I tend to agree. And I don't think anyone would characterize former president Graham Spanier as powerless or in the thrall of Joe Paterno. He spent years building his power base in the NCAA.

Sally, thanks so much for the great article and for this chat. This is such a complex and complicated situation. As a total outsider, it was my impression that Coach Paterno WAS larger than the University, and certainly had no peer within the University hierarchy. It seems like he questioned this notion in the interview with you. Do you think that he should be held to a higher standard given his stature at the school or is it unfair to expect that?

Thanks for the comment. I asked Paterno your quesiton point blank. He indicated that people tended to ascribe to him powers that he didn't actually possess. I think he said something to the effect of, "People think I ran everything, but I didn't." He insisted that there were several issues over the years on which he didn't get his way, and the university prevailed. I think the idea that Paterno had outsized power came in part from the fact that Graham Spanier attempted to force him to retire, and failed. Paterno no doubt had a good deal of support. But it's important to remember that Paterno was a tenured professor -- and it's pretty hard to get rid of tenured profs. And he had donated $4 million to the school library and fundraised millions more. There were a lot of reasons why it was hard to fire Paterno, short of, he was an all powerful all knowing collusus. He energetically disputed that characterization of himself.

I hope with time a more balanced view of JoePa will emerge. I see him much like the hero in the Greek tragedies he studied at Brown. A complex man that could be stubborn and proud, humble and honorable. Fate presented him with a catastrophic event and he made a flawed decision. We should not forget the good he has done, the life he gave to PSU.

Thank you for the comment. With this, I will say thanks for reading, and goodbye.

In This Chat
Sally Jenkins
Sally Jenkins, a sports columnist for The Washington Post, rejoined the newspaper as a full-time columnist in summer 2000. She previously worked for the newspaper from 1983 to1989. Before rejoining The Post, Jenkins was a senior writer at Sports Illustrated. Jenkins is the author of "The Real All Americans: The Team That Changed a Game, a People, a Nation" and and co-author of "The State of Jones: The Small Southern County that Seceded from the Confederacy" (co-written with historian John Stauffer), "It's Not About the Bike" (co-written with cyclist Lance Armstrong); "Reach for the Summit" and "Raise the Roof" (both co-written with women's basketball coach Pat Summit); and "A Coach's Life" (co-written with college basketball coach Dean Smith). Jenkins is a graduate of Stanford University. She is a native of Fort Worth, Texas and lives in New York City.
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