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The Nittany Lion in Winter: The Long Life and Sad End of Joe Paterno

Henry: My life, when it is written, will read better than it lived. Henry Fitz-Empress, first Plantagenet, a king at twenty-one, the ablest soldier of an able time. He led men well, he cared for justice when he could and ruled, for thirty years, a state as great as Charlemagne’s.

Act One, Scene 6

Such a description would have seemed extreme to a man as unassuming as Joseph Vincent Paterno, who occupied the same modest home for more than four decades and allowed his telephone number to be published in the State College directory; moreover, the details were more than a little misleading: JoePa was a head coach at 39, and he stood astride Happy Valley for 46 seasons and 409 victories, the last of which none of us knew at the time formed the coda to his long career.

The rest of it, though, serves as a fairly accurate synopsis of his service at Pennsylvania State University. Coach Paterno was among the ablest skippers of an able era; he led men well, even those who were ambivalent about his tutelage; he ruled the Keystone State by embodying his institution like no coach had before or will again; and, ultimately, his love of justice proved less resolutely rooted in principle than most of us had spent most of our lives believing.

Philip: You have a pact with France.
Henry: Then damn the document and damn the French. She’ll never marry, not while I’m alive.
Philip: Your life and never are two different times.
Henry: Not on my clock, boy.

Act One, Scene 4

The temptation, in the wake of a man’s death, is to elevate (or reduce?) his life to the status of metaphor, which is why it is natural to attempt to explain the messy incongruities and inconsistencies inevitably bound up in 85 years of existence through dramatic analogies, in order to lend that closure only the clean confines of the stage may provide. Our differences of perspective then cease to be disagreements about the man himself, or the life he led, becoming instead debates about the proper play to which to compare them.

So, was Joe Paterno’s life a Greek tragedy or The Tempest? I would liken it, at least near the end of it, to James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter, for that is what the aging alpha male of Mount Nittany was during his declining years on the sidelines, and his shortcomings were those of King Henry II, who was no less the master of his world than Coach Paterno was of his. As evidenced by JoePa’s attempt to dictate his own destiny even as scandal rocked his program and his university, he tried to guide all around him according to his own timetable, seemingly in denial about the extent to which he had permitted events to spin out of his control, and to which events always were beyond any man’s control.

Philip: A king like you has policy prepared on everything. What’s the official line on sodomy? How stands the Crown on boys who do with boys?
Henry: Richard finds his way into so many legends. Let’s hear yours and see how it compares.
Philip: He found me first when I was fifteen.

Act One, Scene 6

There, too, the timing is somewhat off, and not in a direction that well serves Jerry Sandusky’s defense. Make no mistake; if even some of the allegations against the former Penn State defensive coordinator are proven true through the legal process, Sandusky is the wrongdoer, not his longtime boss, but, at the same time, it cannot be denied that Joe Paterno saw no evil, heard no evil, and spoke no evil, except in a manner that made his firing both inevitable and obligatory.

In a way, it seems meanspirited to dwell on the shocking revelations that brought about the ouster that until recently would have been thought inconceivable, rather than focusing on the long life and career that were more than a mere prologue to the heartbreaking denouement, but the end, after all, is a critical part of the story, and acknowledging the reality of it is no more adversarial than the fixation on Coach Paterno’s legacy was sycophantic. As always, the irreconcilable contradictions of an individual human life form a muddled jumble unsatisfactorily occupying an ill-defined middle, incompatible with the starkness of the conclusion we would prefer to believe defines all that preceded it in equally bold relief.

Geoffrey: Why, you chivalric fool---as if the way one fell down mattered.
Richard: When the fall is all there is, it matters.

Act Two, Scene 3

No man chooses the moment he exits the stage, and no man leaves on his own terms, however much we might like to tell ourselves otherwise. The fear that doubtless hounded Joe Paterno---the fear of following in Bear Bryant’s footsteps, from the sideline straight to the cemetery---served as precursor to the reality that ultimately came to pass: JoePa coached his last game on October 29, and, within three months, he was dead.

Still, it mattered how this man fell down; indeed, given the circumstances that precipitated his firing, it mattered more than we could have imagined as recently as two-a-days. Just days before his death, cancer-riddled, wheelchair-bound, and wearing a wig to conceal the effects of chemotherapy, Coach Paterno told Sally Jenkins, “I didn't know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was. So I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did. It didn't work out that way.” Jenkins’s description of JoePa in his last days recalls another line placed in the mouth of King Henry II by Goldman: “I’m an old man in an empty place.”

Henry: You know, I hope we never die.
Eleanor: I hope so, too.
Henry: You think there’s any chance of it?

Act Two, Scene 3

As Americans, we prefer happy endings; we like every setback to set the stage for the coming redemption, every low to give scale to the subsequent high. We wanted there to be world enough and time for the rise that would offset the plummet, but there were not adequate days remaining within which to reach the peak that we hoped would follow this most unhappy valley.

In the end, Joe Paterno was larger than life, but not larger than the institution he did so much to define; ultimately, the icon gave way to the individual, and we saw the old coach as blemished rather than bronzed. That he was flawed, and ought to be faulted for his failings, does not change the good that came before, but it does permit us to see with a clearer eye someone we once regarded as purer than any mortal reasonably can be expected to be.

That is the spirit in which we ought to bid farewell to Joe Paterno, not by paying homage to and through the idolatry of statuary, but by recognizing the complexity of a human being who fell far short of perfection, yet nevertheless strove for excellence. We hoped he would never die. It didn’t work out that way; there was never any chance of it, so it came to pass that this most steadfast of traditionalists committed, inadvertently, an accidental act of iconoclasm against his own legend.

That fact is unfortunate, and the circumstances surrounding it were revolting and tragic, but one unintended side effect may aid us in this troubled time: Joe Paterno, by demonstrating the imperfection in the image, enabled us to see the man, and, when the time came, to mourn him, and thereby to profit by his actual example, both good and bad.

Requiescat in pace, Joseph Vincent Paterno.