Friday, January 27, 2012

Determining a legacy

The passing of former Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno reminded me once again that a person lives his or her life but others determine what that individual's legacy will be.

Such is the discipline we know as history.

Yes, Mr. Paterno's legacy would have been a lot clearer if he had demonstrated more conviction when he learned that one of his former assistant coaches was accused of sexually molesting multiple boys. He publicly atoned as best as one can in a short period of time, acknowledging that he should have done more when he learned about the allegations. He had less than 90 days from the time his actions were learned until his death to explain what prompted him to tell the university's athletic director while apparently doing nothing more. Imagine if he had had 90 months.

So, let's admit that right now it will be impossible to write Mr. Paterno's legacy without considering the sexual assault scandal.

Mr. Paterno was not perfect. Then again, no one is. Each of us has faults. Each of us makes our fair share of mistakes. Each of us had a bad experience with someone that inevitably will be linked to what we are. We all know that one person who won't forgive no matter what and will tell you and anyone else all about it.

When you attempt to objectively assess Mr. Paterno's legacy, it is necessary to ask what he meant to Penn State University. Would it be the academic, research and respected institution it is today if Mr. Paterno had not used his reputation to increase the university's profile?

How many Penn State football players would have graduated and become solid professionals outside of sports if Mr. Paterno had not been their coach?

And would Penn State be a nationally recognized athletic powerhouse if Mr. Paterno had not built the football team into a national powerhouse?

The cynic might say that while Mr. Paterno accomplished much that any other person could have done many of the same things. I doubt that, and here's why: What made Mr. Paterno so integral to the university was that he was there for more than 60 years and the head coach for more than 40.

Presume the following: In 1977, Mr. Paterno opts to leave Penn State for another college job or for one in the NFL. In the subsequent 35 years, the school wins about two-thirds of its games, goes through five head coaches and wins no national championships. And its graduation rate is about 55 percent.

Suddenly, Penn State doesn't seem so great, does it?

And remember we're assessing the football team and nothing more in this hypothetical example. Can we say with conviction that the five men who followed Mr. Paterno would have been as generous with their time or their money to develop the academic mission of the university?

I didn't think so.

I'm not sure I can write an objective assessment of Joe Paterno because I firmly believe his strengths outweighed his weaknesses. No, I didn't know Mr. Paterno. No, I didn't attend Penn State. No, I have never worked at Penn State. But from the perch upon which I sit (which is my favorite leather chair in my living room), I admire Mr. Paterno more for what he stood for than for what he did.

He was a gentleman who demanded that his players graduated from Penn State while playing a disciplined game of football. He was an honorable family man, blessed with a beautiful wife and independent, humble children. He used his fame and fortune not for selfish purposes but for the benefit of future generations.

You decide if that's an objective or complete assessment.

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