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Bernard Fernandez: Paterno was the last one of his kind

Was it a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Students kneel at the foot of the Joe Paterno statue outside
of Beaver Stadium in State College. (Nabil K. Mark)
Students kneel at the foot of the Joe Paterno statue outside of Beaver Stadium in State College. (Nabil K. Mark)Read more

Was it a self-fulfilling prophecy?

There will, of course, be those who will claim that the passing of legendary former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was not so much from the effects of the lung cancer that weakened his 85-year-old body as from a broken heart. And there probably is some truth to that.

No doubt, the manner in which Paterno's 62-year career at the university with which his name became synonymous, the last 46 of which he served as head coach, took a more devastating toll on him than would have been the case had he been gently nudged into retirement by Penn State's Board of Trustees. But his late-night firing on Nov. 9 could not have been interpreted on his part as anything but a personal repudiation of JoePa the man more so than as a coach, and with that shocking dismissal came a flood of other veritable slaps to the face in the form of the removal of his name from various awards.

Perhaps no one in the history of American sports had fallen so far, so fast from the near-universal esteem in which the public had held him. So the frail, fragile icon retreated inside the walls of his modest State College home, wondering what, if anything, could be done to preserve the legacy he had painstakingly crafted over so many years. But fairly or not, a wrecking ball had been taken to that legacy, proving if nothing else that it is always easier to destroy than to build.

You wonder if Joe Paterno is going to his grave wishing he had never heard the name of Jerry Sandusky, the defensive coordinator of his 1982 and 1986 national championship teams whose Nov. 5 arrest for child sexual abuse set into motion a chain of events that brought down not only the Joe Paterno era, but possibly his legend as well.

Then again, Paterno had frequently spoken of the possible consequences of a time when the coaching of football, and the mentoring of those who played the game for him, was no longer an integral part of his life. It was almost as if he dared to believe that by refusing to step away from his sideline duties he could somehow cheat death.

One of Paterno's most-admired rivals was the late Paul "Bear" Bryant, who coached the Alabama Crimson Tide to six national championships and was 4-0 in head-to-head meetings with teams coached by Paterno, the man who one day would break his record for Football Bowl Subdivision victories. Bryant retired following a 21-15 Liberty Bowl victory over Illinois on Dec. 29, 1982, and he died of a massive heart attack just 28 days later, and a day after a routine medical exam indicated he was in reasonably good health.

At a news conference at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York in 2006, after it was announced he had been voted into the College Football Hall, Paterno spoke of his belief that the 69-year-old Bryant died so soon following his retirement simply because that which he loved best and missed most no longer gave him reason to get up in the morning. He would not make that mistake, Paterno vowed; he would keep on keeping on as long as he felt fit enough physically and sharp enough mentally to fulfill his coaching duties. As recently as this past August, at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago, Paterno hinted -with more than a trace of seriousness - that he just might continue coaching until he was 90.

Critics, and their number had been growing in recent years, said that pronouncement was just another indication that an egocentric Paterno could not let go of the spotlight, and that his refusal to step away gracefully was proof that his grasp on reality was loosening even as his viselike grip on the Penn State program continued to tighten. And, yes, there probably was an element of truth to that school of thought. What other college coach, except maybe Bryant, had so much control as to get away with telling the school president and athletic director to go away and leave him alone? Paterno did that following the 2004 season, the Nittany Lions' fourth losing campaign in 5 years, when he informed his supposed bosses that he and he alone would decide when he was through. He then rewarded his confidence in himself by leading Penn State to a 12-1 record in 2005 and again being named Coach of the Year.

It can be argued that maybe the old master should have stepped away after that magical season, having proved that he still had what it took to win and win big. But there were records to break and more young minds to mold, so Paterno stayed on until his sacking by the Board of Trustees revealed that he his power was not absolute, and that nothing lasts forever.

But the bottom line for countless thousands of true believers is this: Virtually all of Paterno's players venerate him; his smaller-than-it-should-have-been paycheck was in part funneled back into Penn State's general fund, which is why the names of Joe and Sue Paterno are on the library instead of some athletic facility; and his Mount Nittany-high compilation of virtuous deeds tower over the stack of mistakes he might have made.

When Paterno, in his last interview, said he did not fully comprehend what then-graduate assistant coach Mike McQueary was telling him about what he had seen of Sandusky and an underage boy in 2002, I believed him. Why? Because while I did not always agree with him on football matters, I never knew him to knowingly tell a blatant lie. In a profession where prevarications are commonplace, his motivations were as honest and as forthright as it ever gets.

Joe Paterno was the last of his kind. And, I think, we all are just a bit poorer for his absence.