Despite Joe Paterno’s controversial final days at Penn State–and in life–he’ll remain a positive figure, much like Bear Bryant in Tuscaloosa.
It is impossible to completely let go of a legend—just ask Tuscaloosa, Alabama, or any coach, save maybe Nick Saban, who’s tried to fill the very large shoes of Paul “Bear” Bryant.
More than a quarter century has passed since Bryant died, barely more than a month after coaching his final game. But he lives on through a museum, a statue, a stadium, a street—all of which bear his name—not to mention the popular houndstooth pattern of his iconic hat.
Perhaps not enough time has passed nor perspective gained to definitively articulate the magnitude of the loss of another legend and one of Bryant’s peers, Joe Paterno.
Had it not been for the child sex abuse scandal that surrounded his otherwise spotless career, maybe it would be easier to rush to hoist the bespectacled JoePa on the shoulders of history. Now, it’s puzzling.
That’s not to say that Paterno won’t—or shouldn’t—be revered for his many accomplishments. But it’s almost as if there are more questions that should be answered before that can happen.
Then again, that may go for those of us outside of Happy Valley. A photo in Sports Illustrated magazine’s Jan. 30 issue captured a scene of what must have been thousands of mourners at a candlelight vigil held Sunday, Jan. 22, the day Paterno died. Like fans and families do, we circle the wagons when one of our own has fallen or is called into question.
Penn State wasn’t much in terms of football or academic reputation before Paterno arrived. But the fiery coach with the Brooklyn accent turned it into one of football’s premier programs and, arguably by virtue of that recognition, a respected one academically as well.
For Paterno, the final chapter of his legacy can’t or won’t be written for many until after the legal battles are fought and settled. That’s fair.
But, regardless, for State College, Pennsylvania, the good that Joe Paterno did and stood for cannot be bricked up or painted over. It will shine through, even decades from now, and fans, alums, students and residents will find that it’s impossible to completely let go of a legend.
Just ask Tuscaloosa, Alabama.