Joe Paterno is the winningest coach in the history of major college football — again. There will be no asterisk next to his record 409 victories in the NCAA record book. At least not one that can be seen.
The late Penn State coach's record was restored by the NCAA on Friday as part of a settlement with the school, which was challenging the legality of the consent decree used to sanction the Nittany Lions for the Jerry Sandusky child-molestation scandal.
Whether the NCAA's latest giveback to Penn State is viewed as another step toward Paterno's vindication or a failure by the one organization that had the ability to hold the coach accountable for his failure to do more to stop Sandusky is in the eyes of the beholder. One thing is for certain: The number 409, like Paterno's legacy, will never be looked at quite the same way again.
"Assessing Joe Paterno's legacy is something that is well-suited for documentary film or other long form journalism because there are no tidy answers," said director Amir Bar-Lev, whose film "Happy Valley" was released in December. "Closing the book on Joe Paterno on having been a phony all of his life or being completely without any blame in this matter or this kind of third way, this sort of Jekyll and Hyde hypothesis that we heard variations on, are all too simple."
For more than four decades, Paterno was not only the embodiment of Penn State football, he was the face of college football. He was revered in State College, Pennsylvania, and widely respected as a coach who won 'the right way.' Penn State was a football powerhouse that played by the rules with players who were both top-notch students and athletes. That was the story told over and over and there were facts to back it up: high graduation rates, national championships and a clean bill of health from the NCAA.
He was Saint Joe to many Penn State supporters in Happy Valley and beyond and always will be.
That he was dragged down by the Sandusky scandal, and fired unceremoniously by Penn State's board of directors a few days after his longtime defensive coordinator was arrested in November 2011 is still hard for many to reconcile. Paterno died of lung cancer just a few months later. When the NCAA sanctioned Penn State and Paterno based on a scathing report by former FBI director Louis Freeh that accused the Hall of Fame coach and other top Penn State officials of burying child sex-abuse allegations against Sandusky to avoid bad publicity, it shattered JoePa's virtuous public image and infuriated those close to him.
"I never thought it was right in the first place," said former Penn State running back Mike Guman, who played for Paterno from 1976-79. "All those things that were put forth upon him and the blame that was placed on him for something than an individual did?"
Guman said the restoration of the 111 victories Paterno accumulated from 1998-2011 was warranted and meaningful.
"Is it complete vindication? No, but a step in the right direction," he said. Guman added Paterno's legacy "will never be what it was before."
Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said time is on Paterno's side.
"The longer it goes I think people will look back on Joe for what he accomplished and not those last few days," said Bowden, who is now again No. 2 on the career victories list to Paterno.
NCAA President Mark Emmert said Friday the decision to settle with Penn State was made to ensure the distribution of $60 million in fines the school has paid over the last three years to help victims of child abuse. The funds had been locked in the legal battle.
Regardless, some say anything that could be viewed as Paterno being absolved sends a terrible message.
"To completely restore, in a sense, Joe Paterno's heretofore pristine reputation, I regret that," said Michael Boni, a lawyer for one of the victims who testified at Sandusky's trial. "He did a world of good, but he made a huge, huge error in judgment in helping cover up Sandusky's pedophilia, and even posthumously I think that has to be recognized."
Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts and is now serving a 30- to 60-year prison sentence.
Friday's settlement prompted calls by Paterno supporters to bring back to campus the 7-foot bronze statue of the coach that was taken down in 2012. University President Eric Barron says "there will be a time and place" to decide what to do about the statue.
Chris Bevilacqua, a sports media consultant and former All-America wrestler for Penn State, is a longtime friend of the Paterno family. He said Paterno's legacy is personal.
"I think it's fair criticism of Joe to say he should have known more (about Sandusky)," Bevilacqua said "That was good enough. Here we are trying to put it all back together. Joe Paterno was a principled coach and educator, none of that has ever changed. He was who he was. He will always be that in my eyes. Whether there is a statue or 409 written on a piece of paper somewhere, that won't change my point of view."
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP