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Joe Paterno could have taken a cue from John Wooden

Joe Paterno could have been to college football what John Wooden was to college basketball. But the former Penn State coach had too little time to recraft his reputation after the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

January 23, 2012|Bill Dwyre
  • John Wooden, left, quit coaching at age 64, when his health started to slip a bit; Joe Paterno chose coach until he was 85.
John Wooden, left, quit coaching at age 64, when his health started to slip… (Kevork Djansezian / Getty…)

In a perfect world, Joe Paterno would have been John Wooden.

College basketball wouldn't have cornered the market on respect and reverence. College football would have had an entry of its own.

The principles they held were similar. They said they were teachers first, stewards of athletic success a distant second, even though they each had lots of the latter. Wooden won 10 national titles and Paterno two, as well as winning the most games in the history of major-college football, 409.

But legacy-building is a tricky thing.

Wooden constructed his perfectly, although certainly not consciously. He quit coaching at 64, when his health started to slip a bit and when it was obvious that the only way he could build on his coaching success was to continually top himself. He knew you can climb Everest only so many times before the bad weather comes.

Out of the spotlight of coaching, Wooden slipped quietly into private life. There were occasional appearances, newspaper stories every once in a while using his expertise. But mostly, the reverence coming his way was from family, friends and former players.

In retirement, he lost his wife, Nell, and slipped further into a quiet life of reading, writing and keeping memories of her alive through the extended family they had created. For years, despite well-meaning efforts on the part of many people in the hierarchy of college basketball, he declined to attend the Final Four because it brought back too many memories of Nell.

He was into his 80s when public life started to heat up again for him. Retrospective newspaper articles spawned the idea of books about his life philosophies. Corporations fascinated by his homespun theories on ethics and fair play sought him as their messenger — and, as with most corporations these days, failed to listen. He made hundreds of public appearances and, at each, the audience was mesmerized.

He could have been overwhelmed, but he somehow managed to handle all the new attention with a smile and a tinge of gratitude that so many people still cared. He could have been angry at the intrusion, but he quickly understood that all those things he had been saying for years at the dinner table and at basketball practice had a wider audience, one that was suddenly finding the simplicity of his approach meaningful and even sexy.

Paterno never had a chance to do what Wooden did, to clear his mind and ponder his navel and see whether the aftermath of football brought life into better focus for him. It was his choice to coach until he was 85.

There still might have been time for Paterno, even in the aftermath of the horrible Jerry Sandusky mess. Remember, Wooden made it until he was only four months shy of his 100th birthday.

But health waits for no man.

One image is of Penn State's beloved JoePa, quietly slipping away to a cabin somewhere in the solitude of Montana and getting a better handle on things in front of a warm fireplace. Maybe a better explanation of his role in the Sandusky mess would have crystallized there, better than the one Paterno gave to the Washington Post's Sally Jenkins only days ago.

"I didn't know which way to go," he said.

We are a country that wants to forgive, even forget. Wooden had a skeleton in his closet, at least in the perception of many fans. They rationalized that his incredible success was partly driven and financed by former UCLA booster Sam Gilbert.

Wooden always denied knowledge of what Gilbert was doing. He was always direct when asked about it, never defensive. Eventually, time and the very essence of Wooden led most people to forget Gilbert altogether, or simply not believe that Wooden's life ethics would have allowed his involvement.

Paterno's problems were a world apart from giving athletes extra benefits. His failure to make his way to the steering wheel of the bus that was driving Sandusky out of town remains unconscionable and inconceivable. Unless there is a dramatic reversal of information forthcoming in the Sandusky case, Paterno's inaction is a legacy-killer.

Still, as a country that wants to forgive, and wants to be able to find at least some small way to rationalize the merits of our sports heroes, we might have softened with any semblance of defense of his actions. With time, even the "I was an old guy who didn't totally understand" might have grown on us.

But Paterno never got to sit on the witness stand, never got to write his memoir, never got to be introspective in front of Diane Sawyer and let a sincere tear slip down his cheek. There was no chance for time to heal, because he was granted no time.

The story of John Wooden did not end with his days as a coach. Very possibly, his work after basketball touched more people than his work during it.

The story of Joe Paterno, which will always be mitigated somewhat by his numerical success as a football coach, ended in controversy and confusion.

Wooden had time to further define his legacy. Paterno had none.

We will remember Wooden with blue skies, gentle breezes and a symphony orchestra playing in the background. We will remember Paterno with an asterisk.

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