Paterno: Hero Or Fallen Idol? It Rests In Eye Of Beholder

“Every day I’m more confused as the saints turn into sinners; all the heroes and legends I knew as a child have turned into idols of clay.” – Dennis DeYoung, 1990.

People have a funny way of deciding who and who isn’t worthy of their adoration. That seems especially true in the provincial world of college football where following your favorite school is akin to a religious exercise and every opponent is an archrival to be loathed and scorned.

Penn State fans and alumni, blindsided by the scandal that has threatened to rip apart everything they came to know and love about their university and football program, are now mourning the passing of legendary coach Joe Paterno, who succumbed to lung cancer the morning of Jan. 22.

But as the Nittany Lions, the Happy Valley community and the entire Blue and White Nation begin the grieving process, they are essentially left to grieve alone – shunned by much of the current college football universe Paterno helped to create and nurture. While the coach’s legion of supporters attempt to highlight a life filled with laudatory accomplishment, many others are quick to point out the feel-good story had a decidedly sorrowful ending.

Ohio State fans know how Penn State fans feel. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the death of the most iconic coach in OSU history. Yet when the obituaries were written for Woody Hayes, all of the victories, all of the championships and all of the young men whose lives he positively impacted were mere footnotes to the blink-of-an-eye incident that occurred on a rainy December night in Jacksonville, Fla., in 1978.

There is no disputing Hayes and Paterno are two of the most successful coaches in college football history. Yet outside the confines of their own particular constituencies, legacies rich not only in winning but in philanthropy are forever tarnished by the way their careers ended.

A half-hearted slug at an opposing player abruptly ended Hayes’ 28-year tenure in Columbus, and an even more half-hearted response to what would become a burgeoning child sexual abuse scandal at Penn State brought Paterno’s career to an end after 61 years on campus, including 46 as head coach.

It seems odd the careers of the two coaches could have ended in such ignominy since there couldn’t have been two more divergent personalities than Hayes and Paterno.

One went to a small Baptist college with the thought of becoming a teacher; the other attended an Ivy League school with aspirations of a law career. One stressed the importance of blood and sweat; the other took a more cerebral approach to his profession. One had all the subtlety of a sledgehammer; the other preferred a genteel approach.

Both were consummate winners, however, and had a positive impact on the lives of thousands of young men for the better part of the last three-quarters of a century. Hayes began his coaching career as an assistant at Mingo Junction (Ohio) High School in 1935, while Paterno first arrived at Penn State in 1950. But there was much more to each man’s life than win-loss records or dusty awards locked away in the corner of some trophy case. Hayes and Paterno were real men – men’s men, if you will – who lent their considerable celebrity to worthy causes without ever asking what was in it for them.

Hayes gave his time and efforts to the March of Dimes, an organization that helps promote the health of mothers and their babies, as well as the Muscular Dystrophy Association long before comedian Jerry Lewis began hosting star-studded Labor Day telethons in 1966. Almost from the time Hayes arrived in Columbus in 1951, the charitable cause in Ohio was a rare one that didn’t have the coach serving as honorary chairman or celebrity spokesman.

He was also legendary for helping his players financially. Of course, that is and always has been a violation of NCAA rules, and Hayes served a one-year probationary period in 1956 and the Big Ten ruled Ohio State ineligible for the 1957 Rose Bowl because the coach had given some of his more impoverished players money from his own pocket.

Hayes never made more than $35,000 during his 28 seasons as Ohio State head coach – not that he ever seemed interested in money. After his death in 1987, his wife Anne cleaned out his desk and found a number of checks given to him for various speaking engagements. The coach had never cashed them. Whenever he did endorse one of those checks, the money usually went to a former player who has having financial difficulties.

Paterno, of course, made much more money than Hayes during the course of his career, but he was no less benevolent with it. He and his wife donated more than $4 million of their own money to Penn State, and helped raise more than $13.5 million toward renovation of the school’s library that bears their names.

Yet for all the acts of compassion and generosity each man did behind the scenes, for all the joy they provided their fans as they reached the pinnacle of their profession, all their triumphs and successes, all their achievements and all the goodwill they generated will always provide only a historical postscript to how their careers ended.

The same holds true for former Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel, who enjoyed a 25-year career of unparalleled success marked by five national championships – the same number of consensus titles Hayes and Paterno combined to win. Tressel also became known as a generous benefactor, donating money for renovation of George Finnie Stadium at his alma mater Baldwin-Wallace and helping to fund a new indoor practice facility at Youngstown State.

At Ohio State, Tressel and his wife Ellen donated more than $1.1 million to Ohio State for various projects including renovation of the OSU Library and James Cancer Hospital. They also created a fund that has grown to more than $1.4 million for cancer prevention research.

And yet, a temporary lapse in judgment regarding improper benefits accepted by some of his players will forever taint everything else Tressel has achieved and likely everything else he ever will achieve.

Is that fair? Probably not, but there is simply no getting around the transgressions each man made. You can lead an exemplary life, but if in the flash of a nanosecond you take another person’s life, it is pretty much guaranteed your heretofore exemplary life won’t matter much to a jury of your peers.

Of course, none of the aforementioned coaches committed any crime. But the mistakes they made were amplified by the fact of who they had become. They had become our champions, our heroes, our idols – and that made their respective falls from grace that much more difficult to accept.

Rather than lionizing these men and making them the subject of our hero worship, perhaps we should simply take stock of the hard lessons taught by idolizing such admirable yet flawed men. Maybe the problem wasn’t that Woody Hayes slugged an opposing player or that Joe Paterno didn’t personally seek a resolution to what he was told was going on in his own team’s locker room. Maybe the problem wasn’t that Jim Tressel thought he could micromanage his way around blatant NCAA violations.

Perhaps the real problem rests at our own doorsteps. After all, we are the ones who made demigods of these flesh-and-blood individuals. If they turned out to be anything less than perfect, can we really blame anyone but ourselves?