JoPa’s Lesson on Legacies

This image of Joe Paterno’s shoes originally appeared on

This originally appeared on as an weekly evo.

My first memory of Joe Paterno was the 1979 Sugar Bowl. Alabama beat Penn State to be the National Champions but I vividly remember those high-water pants, black shoes and thick glasses. I think I made fun of him when my dad told me “Son, Bear Bryant is the greatest football coach to ever walk a sideline but that guy right there is a half-step behind him.” That is high praise from an Alabama fan and Penn State would become a team I loved rooting for – as long as they weren’t playing Alabama.

We have all watched Joe Paterno walk the sidelines over these 46 years. Pants rolled up to avoid getting them dirty and to save money on dry cleaning. Glasses that only he could get away with wearing. That high-pitched raspy voice piercing thru the noise of a stadium full of fanatics. We’ve heard the stories. He goes to the Trustees and demands them to RAISE the entrance requirements for Penn State. He lived in the same modest house for 45 years with a listed phone number. He gives the university 3.5 million dollars to build a new library. Penn State has never even been close to a NCAA violation. Players talk of his generosity and life lessons they learned while eating at his house.

The numbers are staggering.

2 National Championships

46 years as the head coach at Penn State.

40 winning seasons.

409 victories, most by any Division 1 head coach – yes, even more than Bear Bryant.

He was more than a coach. He was the university’s conscience.

At least, that was the image we were led to believe.

Every story on Paterno now starts with the end of his life – fired from Penn State for his role in the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Is this how he will forever be remembered?

I’m conflicted. I don’t think he should be totally exonerated, excused from all wrongdoing. Nor is he anywhere close to the tyrant that is Sandusky. Figuring out exactly where on that scale Paterno should be was never going to be easy. Now it may be next to impossible because he’s gone.

44 days between his firing and his death.

There will be no retrospective interview five or ten years from now with him. There’ll be no cool 30 for 30 film with a happy ending. Just this – a sharp pain of disappointments and questions.

1 act of cowardice.

Or was it ignorance? Or confusion? Or humiliation? Does it matter? The 1 will be remembered more than the 409.

Legacies are fragile.

The minute you start thinking about your legacy and protecting it is exactly the minute it begins to shatter. The minute a legacy becomes the point, it’s over. Disaster. Compromise. At that point, the legacy is really no longer the point. PROTECTING the IMAGE of the legacy is the point. And that is a different beast altogether.

I wonder if this is what happened with Joe Paterno. I wonder if those around him started thinking this way as well.

The 1 is remembered more than the 409.

Whether it should be this way or not is irrelevant. It IS this way. It always HAS been this way. 1 bite from the fruit. 1 act of murder. 1 strike at the rock keeps Moses out of the promised land. 1 laugh earns Sarah a sharp rebuke. 1 doubt mutes Zacharias for 9 months. 1 kiss betrays a friend and a Savior.

We all have our 1 moment. It’s why I will continue to sing the old song:

My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand. All other ground is sinking sand.


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