When I hear the name Joe Paterno, my mind immediately drifts back to the 12th man. It was a football game that put Penn State on the national map and a heartbreaking defeat for my Kansas Jayhawks in the 1968 Orange Bowl. Kansas had stopped Penn State's try for a 2 point conversion late in the game when the officials flagged the Jayhawks for having 12 men on the field. Penn State converted, winning the Orange Bowl and completing an undefeated season that gave the school a big shot of legitimacy in the eyes of the national media.
I always respected what Paterno accomplished at State College. But by the mid-1990's it was clear Paterno needed to retire. The truly great coaches know when to leave the stage. John Wooden did, Bear Bryant did, so did Tom Osborne and his predecessor Bob Devaney.
Paterno's ability to hold onto his job despite some pretty average teams over the last 15 years shows just how powerful he was inside the university. The Sandusky scandal would have been stopped 14 years ago if Paterno had stepped up and called out his assistant. I think what happened was a generational misstep on Paterno's part. He wanted to protect the school, himself and his friend. He didn't realize the serious nature of sexual child abuse because it was a subject taboo to a man of his age.
In my opinion Paterno's legacy is undone by his careless actions. Those actions speak to the larger problem of the unbelievable power that is now assembled in 50 or so college athletic departments across the United States. I can guarantee you that incidents have occurred in the last decade at a handful of our power house collegiate programs that would measure up to the Baylor murder cover up or Sandusky's locker room escapades.
Drugs, rape, and murder are part of the culture many of these young athletes are exposed to and they bring that baggage with them to college. But we shouldn't expect it from our exalted coaches. The next big scandal awaits. But nothing will change, not with all the money that's at stake.