That gave me pause as I considered whether to weigh in on his life and death.
At the same time, though, I wrote — and said on TV, for that matter — that the trustees made the right decision when they fired him for his role in the Sandusky mess, and, before all this happened, satirically suggested several times that he hung on far too long as coach. Much as I admired him over the years, I don't know that I ever wrote a glowing Joe Paterno column. It seemed to me that he had more than enough hero-worshipers. We needed more truth-tellers.
Unfortunately, it's hard to tell the truth about a legend. Paterno wasn't the first iconic college coach who became bigger than the administration that was supposed to be supervising him. How do you tell a legend that he's too old to coach your football team?
You don't, I guess, until disaster strikes.
For every iconic coach who has retired on his own terms with his reputation intact, there have been plenty whose flaws, large and small, led to ugly endings. I attended Ohio State University a couple of years after the Buckeyes fired legendary football coach Woody Hayes. Hayes, well known for his volatile temper, slugged a Clemson University player returning an interception at the 1978 Gator Bowl. It ended the coach's career in disgrace.
Yet I learned when I arrived on campus that Hayes had an office in the Navy ROTC building, where he continued to lecture on military history. A chair in National Security Studies later was endowed in his name at Ohio State. He became a beloved elder statesman in Columbus before dying nine years after he was fired.
In a way, it's unfair to try to link Woody Hayes and Joe Paterno, so different in temperament and reputation, but there are interesting parallels. Hayes coached his team to five national championships over his 28 years coaching at Ohio State — Paterno won two but could easily have gotten more if not for the whims of pollsters — and like Paterno, he was known for his conservative coaching ways.
"To hell with exciting," Hayes once said. "I'd rather be drab as hell and win." I could picture Joe Paterno saying that.
Both men were dedicated to academics at the universities they loved. Both were indifferent to personal wealth. Both were beloved by students.
Of course, there also were plenty of differences. Paterno never had the crazy anger management issues that made Hayes look so ridiculous and, to at least some people on campus, an embarrassment. Paterno's conduct made him a source of pride to pretty much everyone associated with the university, a fact that made his abrupt fall from grace more devastating.
Tragically, another difference is that Paterno never got the opportunity to put controversy behind him and to settle in as a post-coaching elder statesman. The media frenzy of the Sandusky outbreak drove him into relative hiding as he battled cancer and succumbed to the disease.
For what it's worth, I think Sandusky will become no more than a footnote in Paterno's legacy. To demonstrate why, let's go back to Ohio State.
I only was there for a year to get my master's, but my wife and I became big OSU football fans. We attended games in The Horseshoe, and I even took to wearing a Woody-style baseball cap, black with a red O. We've continued to root for the Buckeyes in football and basketball.
But here's the strange part. When Penn State joined the Big Ten and began playing OSU in football, I found myself pulling for … Penn State. And I know very well why.
It was because of Joe Paterno. I so admired him, so wanted him to succeed, that I found myself rooting for him, even against a school I had attended. He represented what college athletics should be about, and whatever my loyalties, I wanted him to win right up until he walked into the sunset of a happy retirement.
I wish he could have gotten that opportunity.
Bill White's commentary appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays