I killed Joe Paterno, according to many of you. Not guilty, Your Honor. If I am blameworthy of anything, it is prescience. Last time I checked, that was not a crime, no matter how beloved the subject.
On November 15—six days after Penn State’s legendary football coach was fired in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual-abuse scandal—I suggested it might be time to start “the Joe Paterno Death Watch.”
“For some men of national stature, particularly those whose level of excellence has endured for decades, their work defines their being,” I wrote. “When that ends, for whatever reason, their bodies give up, sometimes in a matter of weeks.”
The column ended with this thought: “Absent the power and the glory, don’t be surprised if Paterno finally starts acting his age, setting the stage for his final exit.”
Reader reaction was immediate, unleashing a flood of vitriolic email about the audacity of my coldly predicting the imminent death of JoePa, then 84. “Shame on you” was the most-used phrase, or at least the most-used that could be spoken in polite company. Some wished for my own death.
Three days later, on November 18, Paterno’s son Scott announced that his father was being treated for lung cancer. Again, in the readers’ court, I was to blame. “Shame on you” repeated as No. 1 on the hit list, with a metaphorical bullet. “Are you happy now?” ran a close second.
On Sunday morning, the Nittany Lion king died at age 85. As expected, the Sandusky case was mentioned in the first paragraph of every obituary, sometimes before Paterno’s status as the winningest major-college football coach in history.
I take no joy in Joe Paterno’s death. That he died so soon after his sudden dismissal gives me no pleasure, either. I never met the man, but I have boundless respect for his accomplishments and his philosophy. His downfall was of Macbethian proportions.
In my defense, I was not alone in my initial prediction. I heard from several Penn State alums who said they felt the same way but didn’t want to talk about it for fear of the worst actually happening.
After the fact, some of Paterno’s former opponents went on record about the timing of his firing and his death.
“You can die of heartbreak. I’m sure Joe had some heartbreak, too,” retired Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, 82, told the Associated Press. Longtime Nebraska coach Tom Osborne attributed “the emotional turmoil of the last few weeks” as a possible a factor in Paterno’s death.
Now that Paterno’s turmoil is over, I will make another prediction–one that will elicit little dissent: Somewhere, in a higher-elevated Happy Valley, Joe Paterno is already pacing the sidelines, waiting for the next play. He is young and he is healthy, and the crowd never stops cheering.