Paterno's legacy more than a sex scandal

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Coach Joe Paterno of the Penn State Nittany

Coach Joe Paterno of the Penn State Nittany Lions directs play against the Florida Gators Jan. 1, 2011 in the 25th Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. According to reports on November 9, 2011, Paterno will step down as head coach at the end of the season amid allegations that former assistant Jerry Sandusky was involved with child sex abuse. (Jan. 1, 2011) Photo Credit: Getty Images

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Mark Herrmann Newsday columnist Mark Herrmann

Herrmann has covered the Mets and Yankees since 1988, and has been Newsday’s national golf writer since

The standards Joe Paterno set were impressively and immeasurably high. For Paterno's football teams and players at Penn State, winning was only part of the goal. He emphasized all the other details, too: principles like integrity, education and maturity, the idea of developing well-rounded adults and doing good, along with doing well.

It turns out he could not meet all of his own standards. The remarkable program that he built and maintained for 46 years was brought down in his final weeks by a child sex abuse scandal that makes his death an especially poignant ending to an incredible career and a wonderful life.

Maybe history will be kinder to the legendary coach and down-to-earth icon than the harsh light of current reality is. We won't know for years. We don't know everything about what graduate assistant coach Mike McQueary saw. We don't know for sure how McQueary told Paterno about seeing Paterno's trusted assistant Jerry Sandusky in the shower with that young boy. We can't tell if future generations will make the scandal the first sentence in the Joe Paterno Story.

For now, though, it is hard to see past the tarnish. At this instant, this magnificent American success story -- Brooklyn kid studies hard, works harder and helps countless lives -- has aspects of an American tragedy.

If it is all true, it is tragic what happened to Sandusky's alleged victims. And it is tragic that Paterno did not get to leave Penn State and this life on his own terms. Tragic that a robust man saw his health deteriorate almost immediately after the scandal was revealed and tragic that his world collapsed so suddenly and completely.

Fairness will have its say eventually. More people recognize the two words "Penn State" because of Paterno than because of any other factor in the university's history. The two national championships, the five unbeaten seasons and 24 bowl game wins are great, but they seem greater because of the impact his former players have made on the people they have met since they left JoePa. Players like Franco Harris, Jack Ham, Lydell Mitchell, Matt Millen and Kerry Collins, all of whom went on to successful NFL careers.

JoePa, the nickname itself suggests someone who will take care of you. He's more like Joe Paternal. And who can measure how much good was done by the $4 million Paterno and his wife donated to the school?

His official biography on the Penn State website includes this quote from former Penn State linebacker Greg Buttle, who went on to play for the Jets: "He's putting together this winning program, but meanwhile he's teaching 17-, 18-, 19-year olds how not to screw their lives up, how important education is, how important it is to have social acumen. Forget what he's done for players. He's done more for a single university than anyone else. It transcends his coaching. No. 1 to him is what he's done for Penn State University, No. 2 is what he has done for players."

In that same document, LaVar Arrington, a two-time All-America and first-round NFL draft pick, said, "If you're not a man when you get there, you'll be a man before you leave. Joe has his system so that you're prepared for life."

There is where it all unravels. Sandusky's alleged victims lost their chance to grow up peacefully and naturally.

That is all a mark against Paterno. Just as the tackles his linebackers made, the touchdowns his halfbacks scored, the schemes his coordinators designed all reflected well on the head coach, this scandal is an indelible part of the head coach's record.

It is really, really sad, all the way around.

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