Most can't separate Penn State scandal, JoePa's legacy

The thing about the water cooler is no one is wrong there.

For some of us, it's still where we go for opinions - mostly to give ours, of course, but that doesn't mean our co-worker's thoughts are less valid.

Sure, in today's world the information is always there at our fingertips as the internet seemingly gives us the news before it even happens.

But there's nothing like banter with others.

And few topics elicit such strong feelings as the scandal that has rocked Penn State over the last three months.

Joe Paterno's passing from lung cancer at age 85 on Sunday is everywhere, of course. It's the sad, numbing ending to the firestorm that surrounded the final months of his life, and the Jerry Sandusky case continues to leave us all unsure of how to view JoePa's life and career. One writer, astutely, pointed out how complicated it is to write an obituary for Paterno.

JoePa is the man who won a Division I record 409 games, helped make Penn State what it is today - a great, proud university - through his 46 years as head coach and six-plus decades on the job in State College, Pa. His players graduated with regularity and so many of his actions represented the values we aspire for in life.

Knowing that about Paterno, the knee-jerk reaction in his death is that one can't let the last three months overshadow his devoted career at Penn State.

But is that too naive? Can Paterno be separated from Sandusky, the former assistant coach who faces more than 50 counts of charges related to sexually abusing young boys? Even Paterno admitted during the scandal's fallout that he wished he had done more when presented with information on Sandusky's alleged acts.

The headlines in the last day are both telling and varied: "Joe Paterno's legacy forever tainted." "Joe Paterno's death shouldn't turn him into Sandusky case's martyr." "Joe Paterno: A legend lost, a legacy lives." "What is Joe Paterno's legacy?"

It's dizzying.

That's why talking to others lets us empty our souls. The therapy at the water cooler remains second to none even while our world changes.

One by one, they stepped up today, colleagues with strong feelings. It seems everybody longs to separate JoePa from the events of the last three months, but, even as we mourn him, it's impossible.

"The fact that he seemed inept, ill-prepared and ultimately unable to handle the abuse issues makes me wonder if he was still qualified to be in such a position," one colleague voiced. "If it was about more than football to him - education, shaping human beings, etc. - I can't imagine a greater situation where he needed to step up as opposed to looking clueless. In my opinion, pleading ignorance is not a free pass here.

"Ultimately all of the horrible things associated with the abuse scandal happened at his "house" and under his watch. I'm sure he was a human being with a great heart and a good soul, but there is no way you can overlook what ultimately happened."

"He should have done more," another person said. "Any human being would have done more. To say you passed the buck to your superiors is actually insulting. If we are to believe that he was this God-like figure out there, how can what he did after finding out be considered acceptable? Keep in mind when all this was going on, he wasn't the old man he was at the time of his death. He still had all his faculties about him. ... His legacy will be that he put Penn State football above everything else, including the safety of those boys."

Others have a little more compassion in their words, no doubt still filled with that numbing feeling that doesn't escape us all.

"The last couple of months are the freshest things in our memories," one person said, "but he was still a great man, who, unfortunately, made some mistakes when it came to Sandusky. Let's not forget that Sandusky is the actual villain here ... and not Joe. It was popular to pile on Joe in November, but now it is time to admit that there will never be another one like him."

"Simply stated, Paterno put Penn State on the map and is the owner of a record that isn't likely to be touched any time soon," another person said. "For that reason he should always be held up as legendary figure in college football. The events of the past few months - as horrible as they might be - should not be the lasting image that people have of the man. During his lengthy tenure at Penn State, Paterno has always been the embodiment of class and dignity, and that shouldn't change because of the despicable acts of another individual. I have always found it comical when a player gets in trouble for something off the field and the coach is the one who ends up bearing part of the blame. Just because the coach is the face of the school doesn't mean that he can be responsible for the actions of everyone associated with it. In hindsight, Paterno might have done things differently when first presented with the information, but this one mistake shouldn't wipe out four decades of unparalleled success and service to the school."

Penn State alums, not surprisingly, are particularly conflicted, having seen Paterno's down-to-earth greatness up close, and no doubt still wanting to believe he never could be involved in such a scandal.

"The first time I even went to main campus, I was taken on a tour of the surroundings and found it all amazing, and so grown up," one alum said. "All of sudden, my friend and I are strolling through the campus and walking directly in front of us is Joe Paterno. He stopped and shook our hands and even discussed our school work. We asked him a question about the game that weekend and he answered with no problem. He was so approachable if you saw him on campus."

"His legacy will be restored a little bit," said another passionate alum. "But, yes, as a former student it stinks to know what happened."

"I think we'd be a little shortsighted just to remember Joe Paterno for the revelations of the past few months," another alum said. "Did he make a horrific mistake? And I am not sure 'mistake' is even the right word. Yes, he did. To what length or what reason that mistake was made, we may never know fully, though knowing the man's reputation from before the scandal broke, solely making that mistake just to preserve football wins seems a big stretch for me. But, in the end he did, still is, and always will pay the price for that. And don't mistake what I mean, he deserved to lose his job over it. But Paterno also did so much good with his life, he donated so much money back to the university and other charities, he helped countless others through his stature and position in life to lead better lives of their own, and not just football players, and he helped educate a lot of young men who may well never have had a chance to get that education. To ignore all that and just focus on the recent stuff wouldn't do him justice."

We may all remember Joe Paterno a little differently - some more fondly that others - but no matter who you talk to, it just seems what he did for six decades at Penn State can't be separated from what we have learned in the last three months.

It's sad, painful, inescapable.