After longtime friend and colleague Bobby Bowden retired from coaching in 2009 after 46 years, Joe Paterno was often asked why he didn't retire as well. His answer was always, "Because after you retire, there's really only one big event left." Sadly, that took place this Sunday as Paterno died at the age of 85 because of complications from lung cancer.
Paterno had been the subject of much public scrutiny over the past few months, but it had nothing to do with football. When an investigation was launched into allegations made by several young men accusing Paterno's former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, of sexual abuse, Penn State's football program was once again thrust into national spotlight. During the course of the investigation, Paterno was fired as head coach.
Now that he has died, he leaves behind a bit of a confusing legacy. Given the heinous nature of the crimes committed under his watch, many started to view Paterno as a tyrant, as someone more committed to winning football games and gaining personal glory than to the safety and well-being of those who were part of what he considered the Penn State family.
While I won't under any circumstances excuse the crimes of Jerry Sandusky or the lack of effort put forth by Paterno to stop them, I will say that to judge his legacy based solely on this would also be a crime.
During his 61-year tenure at Penn State (no that isn't a typo), Paterno set records for wins by a major college head football coach with 409 wins, 37 bowl appearances and 24 bowl victories. Not to mention, he also won the National Championship twice and was awarded the Paul "Bear" Bryant Award for national coach of the year in 1986.
But to say that his legacy should be measured simply by wins and losses would be wrong. His legacy should also include the lives he touched and the boys he molded into men. He coached football in a way that melded the idea of athletics and academics. He always tried to instill a sense of pride in his players -- not only for their abilities as football players, -- but for their character as men.
He stressed that to act immorally or not ethically does not just stain your own reputation, but also the reputation of those around you. His faith in his players was reciprocated, as countless of them have come out in the past few months and practically said they would take a bullet for the man known affectionately as "JoePa."
As I said, what happened at Penn State was a tragedy, but to allow that to taint the life and career of a man who gave so much of himself to others, whether it was through his coaching or his care for those around him, would also be tragic. College football has lost a great ambassador, an outstanding coach and one of the best role models the sport has ever seen. He should be the standard by which all great coaches will be measured.
Next season, rivalries will continue, dreams will be crushed and dreams will come true, and life will go on much like it did throughout Paterno's career. The difference is that now there will be a gaping hole in the heart of college football.
However, I'm sure that on Saturdays, Paterno will be looking down through those thick, square glasses, wearing his shirt and tie under his Penn State jacket, smiling down upon the game he helped shape for so long.