Hard to believe, but it’s been exactly one year since Joe Paterno died from lung cancer—a day after overzealous student journalists pre-reported his death—just months after being fired from his longtime perch at the top of the Penn State football program. (And it bears repeating: No, it wasn’t Gail Shister’s fault.) Since then: the Freeh Report has come out; the NCAA dropped its bomb of sanctions on the school—including wiping out a number of Paterno’s victories from his official ledger; Jerry Sandusky has gone to prison; Paterno’s statue has been removed; Bill O’Brien led the team to a respectable record; Bill O’Brien didn’t leave; once-admired journalist Joe Posnanski became less-admired for his Paterno biography; and Al Pacino agreed to play Paterno in the movie based on Pacino’s book.
Given everything, the school and its football program seem remarkably solid at this stage in the game—more solid, perhaps, than anybody expected or had a right to expect. Of course, there are years of sanctions yet to face, as well as ongoing civil trials—some aimed at the NCAA, others at Penn State itself, suits could still upend the way we view both those institutions.
So it’s a day for many folks from the Penn State community to reflect, about what the school was and what they want it to be going forward.
And it’s worth noting that some of Paterno’s old supporters tonight will light 409 candles at a mural in State College that includes his likeness; the 409 representing the number of victories he had before 111 were stripped from his record by the NCAA. The hurt hasn’t gone away over the last year of events, not by a long shot, and even if you wish Paterno’s defenders would just be quiet for awhile—given the scope of the sex abuse that occurred and his failure to meaningfully grapple with it—it’s difficult not remember an old William Faulkner line that may be with the Nittany Lions awhile yet: “The past isn’t dead. The past isn’t even past.” Half that statement, it seems, is still true of Joe Paterno.