I never met Joe Paterno.
Six months ago, I was in a media scrum surrounding the longtime Penn State head coach at the Big Ten Media Days in Chicago. I saw Paterno, but I never met the man.
Through the lens of the Canon T2i camera in my hands, I saw a shrinking 85-year-old man with Coke-bottle glasses perched on his nose. Old enough to be the father of every other Big Ten coach, he didn’t really fit in.
But he was JoePa. He was a legend.
Primed to begin his 46th season at the helm in State College, Paterno was asked how long he’d keep coaching. He laughed.
“I’d like to coach as long as I feel like I can do a good job,” Paterno said. “If there comes a time where maybe I don’t feel like getting on the field and I can’t run around, can’t demonstrate …”
Paterno trailed off. His health had been deteriorating in the past year, but things were turning back around.
There were hills around his home on 830 McKee Street that gave him a good workout, and he walked to and from the stadium whenever he could. He hoped to coach four or five more seasons, but coaching into his 90s was always going to be a stretch — “That number may be optimistic,” he cautioned.
Paterno often referenced a quote from a friend of his, journeyman coach Marv Levy.
“I’m old enough to know my limitations,” Levy would say, “and I’m young enough to know how to handle ‘em.”
JoePa knew how to handle ‘em. For 45 years, he ran the cleanest program in college football — his hard-nosed, businesslike players were proof. LaVarr Arrington. Matt Millen. Mike Munchak.
But some of Paterno’s final comments in Chicago were foreboding.
“It may be up to somebody else to make a decision as to whether I’m effective or not for what the program needs,” Paterno said.
It was just a wizened old coach staying humble.
What happened in the next 175 days is nearly inexplicable. It was a nightmare, a cruel twist in the legacy of the legendary Joe Paterno.
Despite the lack of a true quarterback and with dipping expectations in 2011, the Nittany Lions charged out to an 8-1 start, good for first place in the Big Ten. Then, with one tell-all report, Paterno’s program was embroiled in perhaps the most revolting scandal in modern-day sports.
A former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, was being pressed with a battery of charges — some of the most heinous acts imaginable. Victim after victim came forward.
Penn State President Graham Spanier and Athletic Director Tim Curley were fired.
Then, the attention turned to Paterno. He knew. How much? We’ll never know, but he knew something and he did something.
But he didn’t do enough.
On the evening of Nov. 9, with Happy Valley in protest, the Penn State Board of Directors made their decision. They placed a short phone call and told Paterno his tenure as head coach had come to an end.
Eleven weeks later, lung cancer caught up to Paterno. He died at 9:30 on Sunday morning. He died of cancer. He died of old age. He died of a broken heart.
College football is forever changed. There won’t be another coach like him. Never again will a city, university and football program be synonymous with a single name: Joe Paterno.
“College football has lost one of its greatest, a coaching icon,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said in a statement released Sunday.
Now you and I both have to decide how to remember him.
His legacy might be tarnished in your eyes, but it shouldn’t be. It isn’t tarnished for thousands of his former players who knew him most intimately. They didn’t turn on their coach in the last 11 weeks, though some were ashamed with Penn State.
“His players’ love for him, it shows how he touched their lives and it tells who he was as a man,” Hoke said. “He will be missed. His mark on Penn State and college football will never be forgotten.”
If nothing else, don’t judge Paterno by the mistakes of another man. I never met Joe Paterno, and in all likelihood, neither did you.
Former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr met him. He remembers Paterno’s “competitive spirit, incredible generosity, his honesty, his integrity and his humanity.”
I’d like to remember JoePa that way too.
Because for so many of us, Joe Paterno was iconic. He was a legend. He was Penn State.
— Nesbitt sends his sincerest prayers and sympathies to the Paterno and Penn State families. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @stephenjnesbitt.