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.
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.
Paterno said the right things regarding the importance of education and the subordinate role of athletics. He professed his love of learning, backed it up with his own money and has a library named after him. There's no reason to doubt that he meant it.
But there's every reason to believe that his position went to his head. It's hard to blame him. His reputation was virtually impeccable. He was arguably the most popular and influential figure in the state of Pennsylvania. He was a sought-after speaker and spokesman. President Gerald R. Ford tried to recruit him for Congress.
We keep getting it twisted in college sports, though, because we always see the coaches and players on TV, not the chem majors and associate professors. So the tail wags the dog, leaving us with college administrators who fear their bigfoot coaches while students and fans genuflect before them.
Part of the problem is innate, a byproduct of the student-teacher dynamic in college. Young men and women arrive on campus, ready to be molded, and the most popular professors/coaches take on an avuncular nature. If they stick around long enough, these instructors become legendary, viewed still more favorably (and protectively) by students who weren't even born when the tenure began.
There's no getting around the affection that students and fans develop for famed coaches. But universities should do a better job in teaching everyone to keep intercollegiate sports in perspective.
I know it's hard, seeing how the universities aren't exactly acing the test. There's a lot of lip service given to the ideal, but then they play musical conferences, pour more millions into athletic facilities and pimp their student-athletes for merchandise revenue.
By allowing Paterno to remain in power past his prime, Penn State officials helped him undermine his legacy, even before the Sandusky scandal broke. In fighting to remain in so long, Paterno demonstrated everything that made him a great coach and a flawed human being: dedication and stubbornness, commitment and selfishness, perseverance and obtuseness.
In a perfect world, memories of Paterno would be unquestioned and unclouded: the victories, the library, the graduation rate.
But in the end, we'll remember his program harbored an alleged pedophile for years, and years after Paterno first caught wind of it. That makes Paterno just another guy who hung around too long, at a school that enabled its coach to become a deity.
There's a lesson in there for students and fans who protested Paterno's firing.
And for college administrators who might face similar decisions on a celebrated coach.
Deron Snyder, an award-winning journalist who covers sports, politics and pop culture, lives in Washington, D.C., and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.