On Joe Paterno, Life, Art, & Legacy

We all want to leave a legacy. We all want our lives to matter. Yet, that’s not always our call.

I thought about this today, when I heard about the death of former Penn State head coach Joe Paterno. And I thought about the art we create, the lives we lead, and the stories people will tell about us.

Joe Paterno
Photo credit: daveyin (Creative Commons)

Although I’m not much of a college football fan, the story of one man’s mistake and the legacy he will leave resonated with me. It made me take notice of how I’m living my life and the importance of a single decision.

I don’t know how people will remember Paterno, but I fear he will go down in history for how his career ended.

Today, I made my debut on The Huffington Post with this article: A Lesson on Legacy from Joe Paterno. Here’s an excerpt:

Joe Paterno, the former Penn State football coach, died today at the age of 85. His life was full of impressive accomplishments, including two national championships, five victories in major bowl games, and the record for most victories for a major-college coach. Unfortunately, he may be most remembered for a child sex scandal for which he was fired in November of 2011.

In writing the piece, I came across a quote from an interview Paterno did with USA Today: “I didn’t know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was.”

I thought that was interesting. So while still trying to honor the man’s memory, I wrote about what we can learn from his life (failures and all).

Paterno was a humanities guy. He studied English at an ivy league university and loved the Aeneid. He saw his work as that of an educator. He had an impressive love for literature, which affected his outlook on life.

Interestingly, his story very much follows that of a classical hero with one tragic flaw that ultimately leads to his downfall.

There is a lesson here worth noting. For all of us who consider ourselves artists and heroes of our own stories — people who want to do work that leaves an impact — we need to understand something:

Sometimes, tragedy befalls us. Sometimes, bad things happen. How we respond to what life brings is what forms character and defines legacy.

Perhaps not coincidentally, I caught the film Frida on TV today — which tells the amazing and painful story of the 20th century Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Her life was riddled with both physical and emotional suffering.

It left me thinking about the tortured lives of artists and how what we’re remembered for is not completely in our control. Nonetheless, it’s our responsibility to be faithful with our gifts, speak up for those without a voice, and trust the outcome.

Did Paterno do everything right? I don’t know. Should Frida have left her womanizing, lying husband for good? I can’t say for sure. But looking at them both makes me want to be sure I do all I can with what I have.

[T]here is a greater lesson to be learned by this man’s life and from any hero who falls. The lesson is this: You cannot delegate influence. You cannot defer your story to another. It is yours and yours alone.

Read the rest here.

Have you ever made a tragic mistake, because you trusted others to do the right thing?

*Photo credit: daveyin (Creative Commons)

35 thoughts on “On Joe Paterno, Life, Art, & Legacy

  1. The Huffington Post–Debut!! Awesome for you! And yes, the piece was beautifully written. Luckily for me, nothing comes to mind in the way of making a tragic mistake all because I trusted others. I’m learning slowly to go on my gut, because that’s divine guidance trying to prevent me from making mistakes. The hard part sometimes is just giving yourself over to that spirit voice and listening to it. Perhaps doing that would have been more helpful for Mr. Paterno. 

    1. Thanks, MM. Responding to your gut is important. Hard to say what the right thing to do in Paterno’s shoes was. It does sound like he did what he thought was right.

  2. This will overshadow everything else Paterno did for a very long time.  100 years from now, will people care about the child rape more than the winning record?  Probably not – but they probably won’t care about Penn State’s winning record, then, either.

    At one time I was in a position to report suspected childhood sexual abuse.  I did so, and it turned the lives of the parents of the child upside down.  The evidence found… inconclusive.  No one was charged.  Possibly I ended a case of preliminary sexual abuse on a child, scaring off a molester from moving to the next level, and possibly I put those parents through a world of agony for no good reason. Sometimes I still second guess whether I should have reported earlier,
    or whether I should have waited, gathered more evidence and made a later report…

    The one thing I don’t have on my conscience is putting a relationship or institution above the health and safety of a child.

  3. Way to go Jeff!  I read the article. Well written, with deep insight and compassion for this fallen hero. It’s a constant reminder to me too. We all seem to fall from grace at some point, and how we handle it is critical to our character and our recovery.

  4. Great article Jeff. 
    I am a life long Penn State and Paterno fan. My father went to Penn State. Joe was the ultimate good guy. His fall from grace cannot be underestimated among Pennsylvanians. 

    I will be the first to say Joe messed up. He was a good ole boy, naive, and in a sense out of his league when it came to handling this type of thing. He was a football coach and I truly believe he did not know what to do.

    Having said that, when you rise to the stature he did, you are responsible to learn and adapt. He could not stay ignorant to those kind of issues. That is where he failed.

    We as leaders my continue learning and adapting. Ignorance is not a good defense
    RIP JoePa.

  5. Thanks for this Jeff. The Paterno story reminds me that no matter how accomplished me may be with our work, how we treated others may well determine our legacies. In fact, we need to follow through even more with others than we would with our work. The Paterno story has me asking myself if I’m willing to bring the same commitment that I bring to my work to also serving my neighbors and helping them.

  6. Great read, still I think the larger issue with Joe is that people continue to hold others in prominence to a higher standard than even their friends and family. We have so much sympathy for others around us, yet seem intent on crucifying those above us. How often does crime go unreported all around us, are we all responsible for the ethnic cleansing in Sudan because we have “seen” it on TV? 
    Hect Joe didn’t even see anything, he was told about it. If being told about something means we are responsible for it, than everyone who didn’t act during WWII is responsible for the Holocaust. Yes I went there, yes I think it’s that bad. Let’s not hold anyone to higher standards than we hold ourselves. 

    1. Thanks for sharing, Tim. Yes, I do think we’re responsible (to some degree) for what we see and hear. I fought this battle hard when I was in college and we were just learning about the genocide in Sudan.

  7. Thank you for this. As a Penn State alum I grieve so many aspects of this story, not the least of which is the way Coach Paterno’s life ended. I think most of us knew he wouldn’t live long after he stopped coaching. I sort of hoped he’d just drop on the sidelines one day while doing the thing he loved, the thing he was put on this earth to do.

    Loved this: ” . . . what we’re remembered for is not completely in our control. Nonetheless, it’s our responsibility to be faithful with our gifts . . . ”

  8. so. very. true. How we respond to the things that life throws at us is how we are defined. Every day.

  9. I think you were going somewhere great with the article, but from one writer to another, I think it needed more gumption. I sensed that you were on eggshells when it came to spelling out your thoughts. There are great tidbits of wisdom in there, and I love the correlations with classic literature and the character arc of Joe Paterno. But I felt that it needed more meat, more boldness. You mention Paterno’s mistakes in general terms, but I feel like you fail to drive the point home by not spelling them out. 

    Paterno had influence, but he used it in the wrong way. He used it to hide the guilty when he should have used it to protect the innocent. Whether or not it was his intention, he let his brand and his influence become the number one priority, the thing he wanted to save, when he should have been more concerned with saving Sandusky’s victims. His influence became his downfall, and in turn, Penn State’s brand became its downfall, as evidenced by the shameful rioting and continued protests over Paterno’s termination from coaching. 

    Maybe in light of his death you were more gracious about these specificities than I am inclined to be, but this is where I would have gone with it. Would love to know your thoughts about this. 

    1. Bethany, you write with certainty that, “He used it to hide the guilty when he should have used it to protect the innocent.” Really? You seem to know more than the PA prosecutor who stated that Paterno did nothing to cover up the investigation and he acted in full accord with the laws of PA.  So maybe you can tell us your source for knowing and asserting as fact that Paterno acted to hide the guilt of those now indicted for these horrible crimes.

      1. “Acting in full accordance with the law” and doing the right thing are not always synonymous, J.R., but I do understand what you’re saying. 
        And to be clear, I am not saying this whole scandal was Paterno’s fault. What I am saying is that one man’s influence has the power to impact the culture of morality in a workplace, in a team of people, and that it in turn effects the brand of the workplace. Joe Paterno was pristine. Penn State was pristine. And then we discover that he “acted in full accordance with the law” but we also discover that Sandusky has been charged with not one but FORTY counts of sexual abuse. Something doesn’t correlate there.  That is a culture of blindness, a culture where the brand is bigger and more important than the scandal. All that says to the rest of the world is that Paterno and the rest of the people that knew about Sandusky did just enough to cover their own butts with the law. 

        1. Hi Bethany,

          There are certainly many ways one can view a situation as complex as this one.

          We certainly agree that doing what is morally right is not always the same as following the law.We also agree that Paterno was a strong leader of good moral character, and that does have influence on those around him.  He influenced me in my own efforts to strive for success with honor.However, influence is not the same as control. Especially in a large University system of 85,000 people, Paterno did have influence, but I promise you, bad stuff still happens at PSU.

          I think we can also agree that Paterno was a flawed human being and so if we look at his life we will find errors, sins, mistakes, etc…

          In addition, I would suggest that the man also had 60+ years of demonstrated integrity.  Over the decades, he was on the right side of many racial issues that plagued college sports.  He gave millions to build the Library.  He lived humbly in the same little rambler I walked by may times in my years at Penn State.  When I was at PSU, I saw first hand how JoPa put integrity above winning.  He benched guys for stuff other coaches overlooked.  He had the highest graduation rate of any Division I school and pushed his players to learn and get an education.  

          None of that, of course, precludes the possibility that he acted wrongly when it came to Sandusky.  But the possibility of him “knowing” is not the same as actually participating in a cover-up. 

          Bethany, your bold assertion that Paterno “knew” and that he used his influence to, as you write “hide the guilty” is based on media gossip innuendo, and speculation–not a single fact. The only evidence we have is a 3 year investigation that sys Paterno did not do anything to participate in a cover up.  

          What I am suggesting is that there is a lot none of us knows, but given Paterno’s track record of integrity that spans 6 decades, the public should not base conclusions on gossip (and Christians especially should not participate in gossip as that is also immorality.)  JoPa should be given the benefit of the doubt and allow the process to take place, let the real evidence to come out during the trial and then make informed decisions about this man’s life and legacy.

          What do you think?

  10. You begin by asserting Paterno made a mistake…  “he story of one man’s mistake ”  At the end, you say you have no idea if he made a mistake or not.  Which is it you know he did or you don’t know?

    1. That’s not what I said. You can make a mistake and still do a lot of things right. I think Paterno made a mistake, but I also understand he had a reputation for usually doing the right thing. Sorry I was unclear.

      1. BTW, I see you tweeted out this question, “Have you ever made a tragic mistake, because you trusted others to do the right thing?” I don’t know if that is the “mistake” you had in mind for the post, but I do agree that this was probably the biggest mistake in judgement…. he trusted the people he had known for 30+ years to act with integrity and clearly they did not (thus the 2 Administrators being indicted for engaging in a cover up).

  11. Jeff – thanks for your piece, definitely took something away from it.  As a Penn State grad, I have been influenced by the infinite number of lessons Coach has taught us over the years.  There is no question his last lesson was the consequence of inaction (or perception of)…and he himself would be okay with that.  

    I do think once the dust settles, this lesson will be a mere line item on a long list…more focused on his achievements (that you mentioned) than his admitted shortcomings.  Hopefully time proves my admittedly biased wishes hold true. 

    Thanks again for sharing…Cheers, Steve


    1. Thank YOU for sharing, Steve. Appreciate the comment and your graciousness in replying. Admittedly, I’m an outsider looking in. I understand the situation was delicate and that Paterno did a lot of good; I hope I was able to convey my respect for him, his family, and Penn State.

  12. Another perspective from Nike CEO Phil Knight at Joe Paterno’s memorial service. 
    “Joe Paterno is my hero, and has been every day for the past 12 years.  I don’t know who will replace him, but I do know the standard he set will live forever.”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nTZQAGx9rDY

  13.   I think it’s also a classic case of what happens when people overidentify with institutions. It can skew our decision making and cause us to value the wrong things. Concerned he was going to violate university procedures? Joe devoted his life to that university and he did great things and helped countless people. It’s possible he was confused about what his legacy was and what his responsibilities as a leader were. The university and the football program were only a platform for his service to humanity. I think if he would have asked himself, “what is the best course of action to serve humanity?” vs.”What is the best course of action to serve my university, football program or my legacy”, his decision would have been clear. It’s not my intention to villify or judge him in any way. Nobody gets it right 100% of the time, but he got it right a lot of the time. 


  14. Jeff,
    Since moving to Philadelphia at age 21, I have been surrounded by Nitanny fans. Several of my friends attended Penn State.  For them, Joe Paterno walked on water.
    Middle aged men would rent an apt. at Penn State throughout the season and make the trek to on weekends to cheer their team on.

    When the news hit Philly papers and Joe Paterno almost immediately dismissed, 2 teams emerged….pro and anti-Paterno. Although a bit slow on sinking my teeth into the story, I reluctantly felt that Paterno had made an error in judgment….with irrevocable consequences. Once he knew that Sandusky was having sex with boys, it morally behooved him to actively do something about it….not just tell his ‘bosses’ and wash his hands of the horror of what was happening.

    Besides the Paterno story, there is another one that’s happening. It is the several millions of dollars that Paterno brought to the university once the team became world class. His power was extraordinary. He was treated like royalty.

    But as soon as the news made it to the papers, the university dismissed him…without doing due diligence. They knew that Pa. State’s endowments would dry up quickly if they didn’t make some moves. For me, the question is did they proceed with these actions because of the effect on their endowment OR was it a moral decision? We’ll never know. 

    Paterno does represent the classic demise of a hero. It is a sad story. But the tragic story is that of the boys who were raped/sodomized, etc.  

    It is  human nature to criticize others for their actions. We like to think that our moral compass is invincible. Research has shown that this isn’tt true. What we can learn from Paterno’s downfall is that none of us are without imperfection…and to know that under similar circumstances we might have done the same thing.

    Stories like Paterno’s are in part are reflection of that which we fear about ourselves….

    Thanks for a beautifully written piece….Fran

  15. hi Jeff,
    just went to Huffington and read the entire article.
    thanks for that sensitive insight into this issue.

    I had lunch last week with two dear friends who are both graduates of Penn State and also lived there after college. They were trying to convince me that Paterno did what was required of him; he informed the people above him. Therefore he carries no blame.

    but I feel that “being Paterno” carries with it an integrity that is above just informing the authorities. His status and reputation were so enormous that he needed to go further to stop the abuse of poor innocent children. I am disappointed to know that Joe Paterno could apparently live without conscience until it was made public.

    very often great men are taken done by the cover up, not the crime.

Comments are closed.