It has been one year since Joe Paterno's death, and in that time many have tried to understand, or even define, his "legacy," a term that evades definition.
Paterno's true legacy means something different for everyone.
Legacies mean different things to different people, and one as lasting and complex as Paterno's can only be truly defined on an individual and personal level. The man revealed various parts of himself to various groups -- his family, his players, the media, his hordes of fans -- and the things he did and did not do have had, and will continue to have, a tremendous impact on countless lives.
To attempt to write anything definitive, now or even 20 years from now, about Paterno's legacy is foolhardy. But as we mark one year without him, it is worth addressing what has and has not changed in the past year.
The program that Paterno helped build, despite taking some terrific shots from the NCAA, is standing on firm legs. The Nittany Lions won twice as many games as some predicted, are poised to polish off a strong recruiting effort and are being led by a man who went from being a curious hire to earning three different national coaching awards.
Without question, Bill O'Brien made it his team and his program from the start. But he benefited greatly from what Paterno had left him, starting with a senior class that proved to be as resolute as few others. Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges, Jordan Hill, Stephon Morris, Michael Zordich, Matt McGloin … all were welcomed to college football and molded by Paterno.
John Urschel, who was a first-team all-conference offensive lineman while writing a paper that was published in a journal called "Celestial Mechanics and Dynamical Astronomy," was recruited by Paterno. So was Eric Shrive, who has raised more than $70,000 for kidney cancer research since he came to Penn State, through a charitable organization founded by Scott Shirley, another of Paterno's former players.
Twenty players made the Dean's List during the fall semester, a team record. The program's graduation success rate of 91 percent, another team record, was the seventh-best in the nation. These are the achievements that caused so many Penn State fans to ask NCAA president Mark Emmert where, exactly, was the school's "culture problem"?
Paterno helped establish the culture that led to those high graduation rates and wins on the field, the culture that verified his opinion that academic and athletic success did not need to be mutually exclusive. Anyone worried that those standards would fall off, that those priorities would be shifted, under a new coach was greatly relieved this year. That Penn State didn't miss a beat in the classroom is a credit to O'Brien but also a sign of the lasting power of that culture.
What complicates Paterno's legacy, though, is what happened, not on his watch, but in his building. Exactly what he knew about Jerry Sandusky will be debated until the names of both men are no longer remembered. And that uncertainty, coupled with the gravity of Sandusky's crimes, is why Penn State has removed the face of the man who had been the face of the university from nearly everywhere it had been. The motto coming out of Old Main has been to move forward, and there is, apparently, little room for Paterno or his legacy on that trip. Even one year later, the wounds are still too raw, the risk of saying the wrong thing still too high.
And those of us who hung on Paterno's every word and watched his every move for decades deal with life without him. In one sense, it is frighteningly easy, frightening in the sense that something that for so long seemed so permanent -- Penn State. Beaver Stadium. Joe Paterno. -- was suddenly gone. For years, Paterno, with both his mere presence and the values he embraced, fought back time. And then, with a couple of swift strokes, time ended the battle.
There are those who continue to work fervently behind the scenes, or whenever they can get access to a microphone, to defend Paterno's name. His family still plans to address the findings of the Freeh Report and the actions of the board of trustees after conducting, with what they say is a team of experts, its own review. Every now and again, his name will be back in the headlines, and the familiar debates will begin anew.
But those occasions will become less frequent as the years go by, and someday in the not-too-distant future, the last of the players who were coached by Paterno will play their final games for Penn State. O'Brien is driving the program hard into the future. Eventually all that will be left will be the memories we have of Paterno, the individual interpretations of his legacy that mean something different to each one of us.
Right now, though, it's still hard not to feel the void created when he left us.
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