Longevity and Worship Worked Against Paterno

Damaged over time, the image of a legendary coach was done in by an assistant's sex-abuse scandal.

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We'll probably never see another Joe Paterno, someone who spends his entire adult life at the same school, including 46 seasons as the head coach. And it's probably best if we've seen the last coach-for-life model, even though Paterno accomplished more good than bad since arriving as an assistant at Penn State in 1950.

There's simply too much hero worship involved when coaches are in place that long, becoming mythic figures to multiple generations. It leads to a valid criticism of big-time sports, demonstrating the skewed priorities and nagging problems that plague schools and athletic departments.

Paterno, who died Sunday morning, will be remembered for the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal as much as anything else that occurred during his six decades in State College, Pa. That's completely understandable, if not totally fair. He did everything the law required when an assistant informed him of Sandusky’s alleged atrocities, and prosecutors have cleared Paterno of any wrongdoing.

But he should've stepped down on his own on Nov. 9, acting on principle and in the best interest of the university. Instead, he announced he would resign at the end of last season, trying to hold on a sliver longer. The board of trustees rejected that proposition, rightfully so, and fired him.

Paterno had been nearly impossible to get rid of since taking over when Lyndon B. Johnson occupied the White House. The problem of sovereign coaches was on full display when sycophants took to the streets after Paterno's termination, flipping over a news van, tearing down lampposts and throwing rocks, prompting police to respond with riot gear and tear gas.

Not every larger-than-life coach sparks a violent outburst when a change is made. But when such coaches become synonymous with their university, perceptions can become warped. Despite appearances, Paterno was not equivalent to Penn State football or Penn State itself. Given just cause, he should have been subject to the ax like anyone else, without causing civil unrest.

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Those who fought for Paterno to keep his job in 2000-2004, when he was in his mid-70s and won just 26 games in five seasons, showed a lack of perspective, as did the supporters who argued he should be retained in November, despite the controversy that swirled around his program and under his nose.

There's no evidence that Paterno abused his power and prestige. All indications suggest he used his status to advance the university's standing in academics as well as football. He demanded that his program achieve "success with honor," almost to the point of self-righteousness. Fundraising became a personal mission, aided by more than $4 million of his own money, as he helped the school's endowment grow to an estimated $2 billion.

However, he was still just the football coach, not the president or the chancellor. Yes, Paterno's team made $50 million for Penn State in the 2009-2010 season, but football is still an extracurricular activity. It's extremely profitable and earns the school a ton of free advertising. But the enterprise remains secondary to Penn State's core mission, which is education.