Dead Flies and the Legacy of Joe Paterno

Michael Brown

11/10/2011 1:11:00 PM - Michael Brown

There is one verse in the Bible that begins with the words “dead flies,” found in the King James translation of Ecclesiastes 10:1: “Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour: so doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honour.” In more contemporary language, the verse states, “As dead flies cause even a bottle of perfume to stink, so a little foolishness spoils great wisdom and honor” (New Living Translation).

The story of Joe Paterno, not just a heralded college football coach but a living icon who helped transform a whole university, provides eloquent testimony to this biblical maxim.

Consider first Coach Paterno’s legacy as of October 29th of this year, as headlines proudly announced, “Joe Paterno passes Robinson as winningest coach in Division I,” meaning that the 84 year-old Paterno had amassed more wins as a coach than any other man in the history of major college football.

He accomplished this extraordinary feat by coaching the same team from 1966 until his sudden dismissal this week for his failure to take sufficient steps to report an alleged pedophile. This amounts to more than 45 straight years of successful coaching, because of which he has already been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. “Without debate,” wrote sports journalist Dejan Kovacevic, “he’ll go down as the most accomplished coach college football has ever known.”

And despite Paterno’s age, his team is currently ranked 12th, meaning that some of the best prospects in the nation were still going to Penn State in order to play for him, and also meaning that he was still able to put a quality team on the field each week.

But that is only a small part of the legacy of the man affectionately called “JoePa.” As noted by ESPN columnist Ivan Maisel, “Joe Paterno devoted his entire career to a belief in the power of athletics, but only when coupled with the power of academics. His will and his enthusiasm provided a public face for the transformation of Pennsylvania State University from a regional agricultural school to one of the most important public universities in the nation.”

Paterno and his wife Sue personally contributed $4 million to different departments and colleges within the university, and he helped raise $13.5 million for the expansion of the main library, after which it was renamed the Paterno Library.

There is a Paterno statue outside Beaver Stadium, which seats more than 100,000 (making it one of the largest stadiums in the world), and students who camp out in tents before the games in order to get the best seats call their camp Paternoville. There is even a campus ice cream flavor named Peachy Paterno.

None of this is achieved overnight. In fact, legacies like this can only be built over the course of a lifetime, perhaps only over the course of a long lifetime. And legacies like this can only be built without scandal, which makes the accomplishment all the more difficult. To use a “celestial” play on words, there are many “rising stars” who quickly become “falling stars,” many “shooting stars” whose impact lasts for a moment, many “superstars” whose accomplishments are all but negated by their personal failures.

This was not the case with Coach Paterno, whose personal life, career achievements, and longevity made for a very solid “threefold cord” that could not be easily broken (see Ecclesiastes 4:12b for the concept).

And then one scandal. One tragically serious oversight. One failure to go beyond formal procedure (of reporting the incident to his authorities, which he properly did) and take further action (by going to the police, or at least, by assuring that something was being done, since the same accused man continued to serve as a trusted member of his senior staff for years). In Paterno’s own words, “This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”

A tragedy indeed. As Maisel wrote, “The idea that Paterno’s legacy, built with the highest of ideals, will be stained by the vilest of scandals should test the faith of all of us.”

In the future, it is possible that Paterno will be remembered more for his decades of service to Penn State than for the current scandal, and that “distance and perspective will eventually create a more nuanced legacy.”

But there can be no doubt that his extraordinary legacy has been tarnished, as headlines are now reading, “Scandal sullies Joe Paterno’s legacy” and “Paterno’s legacy a sad, sorry finish.” Dead flies indeed, and a sobering lesson for us all.