Joe Paterno Death Watch

How long will the legendary coach stay alive without a connection to the Nittany Lions?

As macabre as this sounds, it may be time to start the Joe Paterno Death Watch. Metaphorically, JoePa died last Wednesday, when Penn State’s board of trustees fired the legendary football coach for not having done enough to stop the alleged rapes and other sexual abuse of children by former assistant Jerry Sandusky.

Paterno turns 85 next month. Penn State football has been his life for 61 years—the last 46 as head coach. With that wrested from him, and with the expected dismissal of his entire staff, it’s conceivable that Paterno will depart more than the athletic field. And sooner rather than later.

The situation is not without precedent.  For some men of national stature, particularly those whose level of excellence has endured for decades, their work defines their being. When that ends, for whatever reason, their bodies give up, sometimes in a matter of weeks.

On Dec. 29, 1982, after Alabama beat the University of Illinois in the Liberty Bowl, reporters asked Bear Bryant, the fabled Crimson Tide coach, what he planned to do in his new retirement. His reply: “Probably croak in a week.” Four weeks later, he died from a massive heart attack at age 69. Beloved Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, for whom the Super Bowl trophy is named, was hired by the Washington Redskins in 1969. Eight months after the ’69 season, he died of colon cancer. He was 57.

More recently, 60 Minutes curmudgeon Andy Rooney did his last broadcast on Oct. 2, 2011. Four weeks later, he died at 92 from complications following minor surgery. Less than 18 months earlier, Rooney had said he planned to work at the CBS newsmagazine until he dropped dead. “What else would I do?” he asked.

For an aging Joe Paterno, Penn State football was pure oxygen. The power of his position  more than compensated for the increasing frailty of his body. Like Rooney, he probably believed he would go on forever, a Happy Valley deity.  As long as he had the job, nothing else mattered.

I’m the winningest coach in major-college football history and I’m 84 years old. You got a problem with that?

The Board of Trustees did, along with legions of Penn State students, alums, advertisers, bloggers, bond buyers and the NCAA.  On  Saturday Night Live, even Satan himself was outraged.

The lives of at least eight little boys, some now young men, were shattered by Paterno’s former top assistant during his alleged reign of terror. Regardless of the final verdict, Paterno has to know that his failure to act with moral integrity will forever stain what would have been a mythic legacy.

The question is, how long can he stay alive with that stain? Absent the power and the glory, don’t be surprised if Paterno finally starts acting his age, setting the stage for his final exit.

Be respectful of our online community and contribute to an engaging conversation. We reserve the right to ban impersonators and remove comments that contain personal attacks, threats, or profanity, or are flat-out offensive. By posting here, you are permitting Philadelphia magazine and Metro Corp. to edit and republish your comment in all media.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=528513259 Lindsay

    Wow. This is taking this just TOO far. It’s amazing what people like you will do for a headline. You should be ashamed.

  • cjlpsu1

    With all due respect Ms. Shister, this is in extremely poor taste and I’m quite surprised your superiors allowed this garbage to go to print. This is a disgrace to journalism…

  • lmdpsu1

    This is beyond the pale. Journalists like Shister think it’s their job to pontificate–at the expense of others–rather go to the trouble of investigative reporting. To those who are jumping on the Paterno-bashing bandwagon, realize you are hurting many many PSU alumni.

  • beans111

    This isn’t sick, it’s humorous. If she simply stated the facts, it wouldn’t be a story. Shister brings a vibrancy to her articles that is almost impossible to replicate. Hollaaaaa

  • ftown69

    Oh Gail. Not appropriate.

  • suburbdog1

    Oh come on, everyone was thinking it! Get off your high horses people! Paterno should have retired 20 years ago at a respectable retirement age and gave someone else a chance to carry on his legacy. Go out on a high note, so to speak. But his ego got the better of him and he got greedy.

  • johnj9

    skins4554 – that made me laugh out loud. Ms. Shister deserves a little abuse after making such a post.

  • mitduf1

    This is one “journalist” firing the Inky got right. Horrible piece, no pun intended.

  • http://www.facebook.com/michaelgday Michael

    Well, I finally found someone sicker than Jerry Sandusky. How did this ever get past the editors? Ms. Shister, you should crawl in a hole and never come back.

  • phils123

    Interesting way of looking at it. Unfortunately you’re probably right. Pay no mind to the wackos! This kind of article brings them all out from under their rocks.

  • dcc1317

    You are an awful awful person for writing an article with a headline like this, you just give credence to the feeling people have about irresponsible journalists…Shame on you!

  • hgg102

    Gail, I find this article to be disgusting. I realize Joe Paterno has been the public face of Penn State for over 60 years, but he is also someone’s husband, someone’s father, someone’s grandfather. Your article is a disgrace — and beyond that, pointless. What does it achieve? Does it help those who were hurt? Does it punish those who are guilty? Does it move the conversation about this tragedy forward? It achieves none of these. I echo dcc1317′s thoughts: Shame on you.

  • notpennstate1

    A vile and worthless post . . . adding nothing of value to the reporting or analysis.
    As more information comes out and others are found more culpable than Paterno, what then? You and your media colleagues in this lynch mob will have blood on your hands.

  • pat4katz

    Gail, I always enjoyed your column in the Inquirer, & I miss reading it there…As a PSU alum, I’ve had the same worrisome thoughts about Joe, which you put into words…I agreed with Joe when he said that in hindsight, he probably should have done more, but I also need to believe that he is innately a man of integrity, and that the events which have occurred are tearing him apart on so many levels, & I don’t just mean due to the loss of his career…I fear for Joe’s health as well.

  • phal0101

    Some things just shouldn’t be said. A lot of people, myself included, automatically have these concerns about someone whose life has been affected dramatically but we don’t announce it to the world.

  • amdpsu1

    I see my original post was removed for being almost as vile and repulsive as yours is, Ms. Shister. I guess you didn’t like being treated similarly.

  • peter1

    Jeez, chill out already. You know, it’s not as if Paterno himself hasn’t voiced similar concerns, and has on numerous occasions cited the example of Bear Bryant as a reason he didn’t want to retire.

  • weare09

    I’m a PSU alumni, and I am fine with this story. The headline could have been less drastic, but a lot of us in the community have talked about this possibility. It’s not an insensitive comment as much as it is an acknowledgment of the intense love that Paterno had for our school.

  • godmilow1

    I’m a Penn State alum and I must say that I would hope a journalist of your experience would be able to write something more meaningful about the Sandusky debacle. Surely you could do better. Why don’t you write an article asking the question of where were the parents of these boys and why is it that boys don’t report sexual abuse and what happened to the 1998 incident. Try harder Gail!

  • geddylee3

    Yes I agree…..this is kicking a man when he is down. Now we have just learned that JoePa has lung cancer

  • dcc1317

    Are you happy if the reports are true he is near death. Are you and those cracker jack ESPN reporters going to throw a party? Imagine if your family was forced to read a headline about you like the trash you wrote. Again SHAME ON YOU