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On a hot summer morning a decade ago, my wife and I were walking on the beach in New Jersey when a shirtless Joe Paterno, spindly body toasted nutmeg-brown, came striding our way, arms swinging determinedly. I reintroduced myself (you had to do that with Joe), and we chatted for a few minutes before he set off again on his dogged daily constitutional, during which, as he said, "I do my best thinking."
I've been reminded of that sunny tableau several times over the past week while trying to assess how history will judge the man. Though many believed he'd hung around as head coach a decade too long—I am one of them—the 84-year-old Paterno had, until the recent revelations, a first-class seat on the bound-for-glory train, a place in the coaching pantheon next to Knute Rockne, Bear Bryant, John Wooden and Dean Smith.
But now Paterno, like Shakespeare's Cardinal Wolsey, has been "broken with the storms of state," and there are not enough days to rebuild him. That must be said before anything else, before the 409 wins; the two national championships; the near-spotless record of avoiding NCAA investigation; the 89% graduation rate; the myriad beneficent acts he performed on behalf of Penn State; the funding of the on-campus Paterno Library; the crotchety manner, high-tide trousers, white socks and Coke-bottle glasses that seemed to scream rectitude.
He can't get it back. Rockne perished at 43 in a plane crash, now a herky-jerky icon in a black-and-white film. Wooden, who died at 99 in June, hung it up at 64 (Paterno can hardly remember when he was 64) with precious little of Sam Gilbert's booster stink on his UCLA sweater. Smith was 66 when he left North Carolina, his greatest transgression remaining what it always was: His teams held the ball too much. Bryant, who seemed to be around forever, was 69 when he decided that his team "deserved better coaching than they've been getting from me this year." He died a month after his last game in 1982, as revered, though not as universally loved, as Paterno.
Even if JoePa hits three digits (and who would bet against that?), he will always carry the weight of the Sandusky scandal, and what he—the most important person in State College and points beyond—did and did not do. But if it's possible for a moment to put aside the legal questions that are swirling around Happy Valley like confetti in the chill November wind, what is the legacy of Paterno, whose coaching résumé dates to the outbreak of the Korean War?
The odd thing about his 61-year career at Penn State is that, footballwise, it's difficult to pinpoint exactly what he's known for, beyond refusing to allow players' names on the back of their jerseys. He was an offense-oriented coach, but his coordinators were always considered the architects of the Nittany Lions' attack. Paterno had some terrific running backs (John Cappelletti, Franco Harris, Lydell Mitchell, Curt Warner, Ki-Jana Carter, Blair Thomas and D.J. Dozier among them), but Penn State will never be mistaken for Southern Cal. Or Brigham Young—Paterno's teams barely threw the ball as well as Rockne's. By and large, the Nittany Lions' success during Paterno's 46-year run as head coach was built on defense, and much of that credit goes to the now-disgraced Jerry Sandusky and Sandusky's successor, Tom Bradley, now the acting head coach.
No, Paterno's legacy is something much different and rarer. Though he lived in a universe of suitcase coaches who thrive on the pull of the best new deal, Paterno demonstrated that one man can stay in one place and achieve success over a long period of time. He put down roots and in the process gave Penn State its most valuable living-room recruiting spiel: Son, you come to Happy Valley, you know the head coach is going to be there.
The flip side of constancy, though, is calcification. As the years wore on, Paterno became increasingly risk-averse, and his teams led the nation in small-margined victories over opponents they should've clobbered. More to the point, as the seasons turned to decades and the decades to a seeming eternity, the program, like so many others, devolved into a fiefdom, with strong evidence that decisions were made to protect it at all costs—even human costs. That is what happens to powerfully insular institutions led by powerfully insular men.
Given all the good Paterno has done, I hope he finds some measure of peace, if only during those long morning walks on the beach. His gait will be slow, since he is that rare octogenarian who has suffered "football-related injuries" in the last few years. As for his thoughts, I can only guess they will be much darker than they were in that not-too-distant past, when his place among the great coaches, and the great people, seemed unassailable.