It took Joe Paterno's disappointed parents a long time to get over his decision in the late1940s to give up law school to go into coaching. Once they did, Angelo Paterno gave his son advice he has never forgotten. "If that's what you want to do, then do it. Just make sure you make an impact."
On thousands and thousands of Penn State football players and students. Paterno did it in such a positive, life-altering way that he was nominated in September for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award.
And, sadly, it appears, at least peripherally, on a still-growing number of alleged sexually abused boys by former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. Paterno's role in the sordid affair was enough to force Pennsylvania Sens. Bob Casey and Pat Toomey to rescind their support of his Presidential Medal nomination after he was fired by Penn State officials Wednesday night.
So what do we make of Joe Paterno?
Polarizing doesn't begin to describe the question.
Even Paterno's harshest critics have to admit he has been wonderful for college football in general and Penn State in particular. He's the all-time greatest coach in his sport, the proof his 409 wins. He made sure his players went to class, graduated and became productive members of society. He donated more than $4 million to the school and used his fame as a coach to raise countless millions that have been used for, among other things, the Paterno Library, the Mount Nittany Medical Center, the endowment of faculty positions and student scholarships and Special Olympics. He made Penn State better. He made it nationally renowned. He made it important.
"Coach Paterno will go down in history as one of the greatest men," said Penn State interim coach Tom Bradley, who took over the team after Paterno's dismissal and will lead it against Nebraska today at Beaver Stadium.
"Just make sure you make an impact ... "
But even Paterno's most loyal supporters have to be troubled by what he knew about Sandusky's alleged sexual abuse of young boys and what he did or didn't do about it. Penn State assistant coach Mike McQueary -- placed on indefinite paid administrative leave Friday by university officials -- testified before a grand jury in December that he told Paterno in March 2002 that he witnessed Sandusky sodomizing a boy in the showers at the Lasch Football Building on the Penn State campus. Paterno reported the incident -- meeting his legal requirements -- to athletic director Tim Curley and senior vice president Gary Schultz, theoretically, his superiors, although no one was above him at the university during much of his astonishing 62-year run at the school.
Apparently, he did not pursue the matter further even though he was aware Sandusky had admitted in 1998 to inappropriate contact with a child on the Penn State campus, an incident in which Sandusky wasn't charged.
Who knows why?
Maybe Paterno wanted to protect Sandusky's reputation. More likely, he wanted to protect Penn State's image, which he had devoted his life to crafting and constantly polishing. It wasn't about protecting the money streams. Paterno never was about the money. Power, maybe, but not money.
He was all about his beloved Penn State.
"Just make sure you make an impact ... "
"With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more," Paterno said of the Sandusky matter in a statement Wednesday.
Even those closest to Paterno can't agree what to make of that admission. They can't agree on the merits of his firing. Former Steelers linebacker Jack Ham, a Penn State All-American, thought so much of Paterno that he picked him to present him for his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1988. Friday, He said Paterno had to go for the good of the university and the football program. Ham's former Steelers teammate, Franco Harris, another Hall of Famer and Penn State great, accused the university's trustees of basically being gutless in an interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and said he respects Paterno's moral integrity much more than that of those who fired him or called for his firing.
I'm with Ham on this issue. Paterno had to go. The trustees made it clear there are some issues even bigger than winning football games and fundraising. Protecting children has to be at the very top of that list. The trustees made it equally clear that not even the great Paterno is bigger than the university. It is a message that desperately needed sent, especially after Paterno brazenly told the board members in his Wednesday statement not to spend "a single minute" discussing my status" and that he would retire after the season.
Of course, that's just one man's opinion.
More than 100,000 people are expected for the game today against Nebraska and probably will come with 100,000 different opinions about Paterno. What a surreal feel that game will have without him. It's hard to comprehend that, since joining the Penn State staff as an assistant in 1950 during the Harry Truman administration, he missed just three of 731 games -- the game at Army in 1955 after his father died, the '77 game at Syracuse after his son, David, was injured in a trampoline accident and the 2006 home game against Temple after he was injured the week earlier in a sideline collision at Wisconsin. It's even more unfathomable to think he won't be a part of another Penn State game. Ever.
As for how Paterno will be remembered, it's too soon to say with finality. More details in Sandusky's sad story need to emerge. Paterno's exact role needs to be completely defined.
But there's no question it's not looking good for the old coach. A lifetime of good work by a good man could be overshadowed by one bad decision or series of bad decisions involving a onetime trusted colleague.
Please don't say that's unfair to Paterno, though. That's the wrong word. That's insulting, actually.
Only one group has been unfairly treated in this sickening story.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.