Joe Paterno, 1926-2012

“Success without honor is an unseasoned dish, it will satisfy your hunger but it won’t taste good” – Joe Paterno

Joe Paterno died yesterday, after a short fight with lung cancer. The man who won more games than any coach in Division I history (409) saw his career come to an unceremonious end a few short months ago in 2011 when the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke. It seemed like an unfitting end to such a great and dignified career, and yet (as we wrote at the time), it was the only option available to the University – Paterno had to go.

I’m not a Penn State fan. I don’t dislike the Nittany Lions, but I wouldn’t classify myself as a fan. Still, I think we all have our memories of Joe Paterno.

Probably my favorite was the 1987 Fiesta Bowl win over the “unstoppable” Miami Hurricanes (14-10) to culminate the 1986 season. Back in those days there was no Bowl Championship Series, and it was not at all surprising to see the best two teams play in separate bowl games. Somehow though, the Fiesta Bowl convinced the #1 Hurricanes to leave Florida (they could have played in the Orange Bowl – and likely would have won handily) to come to Tempe Arizona to face the undefeated Nittany Lions. Paterno pulled off the unimaginable.

Miami dominated the game in every way … except on the scoreboard. They piled up 445 yards of offense and 22 first downs, versus 162 yards and 8 first downs for PSU. But they also had 7 turnovers, due in no small part to the defensive genius of Jerry Sandusky. (I hate to say good things about such a man, but  he honestly was an impressive defensive mind.) It’s like they knew they couldn’t stand toe-to-toe with Miami (and they couldn’t). They knew they couldn’t go up and down the field on the Hurricanes (and they couldn’t). The only chance was to “bend but not break” and get turnovers when the field gets crowded down toward the end zone. It was the “rope-a-dope” strategy. It was the only way Ali could beat Foreman, and the only way Penn State could beat Miami – and that’s exactly what they did. Awesome.

My least favorite Paterno moment may have been the 1983 Sugar Bowl, when Penn State knocked off my beloved [at the time] and undefeated Georgia Bulldogs 27-23 to rob us of another national championship.

Those two seasons, 1986 and 1982, were Paterno’s two national championships. He could certainly have won more, but in a voting system you never know what will happen – and plain vanilla football doesn’t always win a popularity contest. I suspect Paterno would have had more titles had he been able to play in a playoff … but we’re still a few years away from that.

The Jerry Sandusky scandal hit Penn State hard, and I think it hit Paterno just as hard. In the lead quote (above) Paterno indicated that winning without honor just didn’t taste good. I suspect that’s what he felt after being relieved of his duties as head football coach. In some sense the honor had been taken away – and that doesn’t taste good. He also said “losing a game is heartbreaking; losing your sense of excellence or worth is a tragedy” – and I suspect that the Sandusky flail caused his sense of excellence or worth to crumble just a bit. One can only wonder whether a crestfallen Paterno had lost his drive by the end, and didn’t really see much point in fighting.

The whole thing reminds us that we are all human. The man who achieves great success is still a fallen, broken, imperfect man – just like the rest of us. We all stand before God with flaws and imperfections, sins, and the stain of evil in our hearts.

The one who trusts in his own greatness, trusts in futility. “But blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose confidence is in him. He will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.” – Jer 17:7-8.

I prayed for JoePa Saturday. News reports were not good and I admittedly know very little about his religion or his faith in Christ Jesus. I know he’s catholic, but a lot of people are of a lot of religious traditions – who knows what anybody really is except the Lord? So I prayed – for faith and peace. (The catholics will surely be praying still today – but the evangelicals draw the line at death and leave the rest to the Lord … but this isn’t a post about theology.)

Youtube has quite a few Paterno tributes today. I’m sure more will come in. Here’s a historical one that seems pretty fair in its reporting:


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