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Joe Paterno a martyr, but for what?

Joe Paterno with defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky Penn State August 1999.  |  AP

Joe Paterno with defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky at Penn State in August 1999. | AP

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Updated: February 25, 2012 8:11AM

Joe Paterno, who died Sunday morning at age 85, will go down as a martyr.

For what, it’s not clear. Not at this moment, anyway.

It likely will take the sands of time and the sifting of those fine granules through the life and complex era of a dignified man to let us know what the final chiseled decision will be.

Does the fact that Pater-no won more Division I college football games than anyone (409), had a high graduation rate, loved his family, gave huge sums to the Penn State library and stayed in a modest house in one small town forever trump that he had an alleged serial sexual predator on his staff for more than two decades?

If it does, then does it also trump that he did almost nothing about the alleged perverted criminal when he had the chance?

Angry worshippers in State College, Pa., already have said it was the Penn State trustees, who unceremoniously fired Paterno two months ago via a tacky phone call, who killed him.

Technically, the culprit was lung cancer. But a broken heart indeed might have been a contributor.

Defenders of sexually abused children say that it was Paterno’s untouchable, all-powerful football system that allowed the alleged predator, former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, to flourish outside the law for so long. They will point out that child sexual assault is not a minor issue, but a hideous gift that never stops giving.

It well might be that Paterno simply stayed too long at Penn State — 61 years, 46 as head coach — and was eaten up by a changing world he didn’t understand. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2007 and could have exited then with grace and class. The Sandusky thing already was well under way, but Paterno could have avoided much of its still-spreading stain by acknowledging how dumbfounded he was by modern evil.

On his deathbed, frail and wearing a wig, he told the Washington Post, seemingly mystified, “I never heard of, of, rape and a man.’’ Maybe he should have been paying more attention.

But he was a child of the Great Depression and old-school Catholicism, and the Church’s biggest legacy of the 20th century likely is the way it covered up — didn’t even acknowledge — institutionalized pedophilia in its ranks.

The saying is true, in mythology and the real world, and maybe it’s what Paterno was martyred by: Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.

There was a fiefdom at Penn State, and its king was Paterno. He was the most powerful man in the ironically named “Happy Valley.’’

And irony might be the cross of martyrdom here.

They called him “JoePa,’’ a perfect abbreviation of his last name, his beloved state and the sweet term “Grandpa.”

Can we all agree that there is no more sweetness to big-time college coaching? That it died with $5 million contracts, TV pressures and Bobby Knight?

Remember how beloved Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel was just a year ago? Remember how he went out in flames?

A long time ago, I got a chance to interview Paul “Bear” Bryant in his Alabama office. The window air conditioner rattled at full throttle, and he smoked cigarettes one after another. He was near the end, legend
intact, but he seemed to me — a 20-something reporter and former jock — to be way out of modern times.

In 1983, I visited Eddie Robinson at Grambling. He had been head coach there for 43 years, and he was about to catch his idol, Bryant, in all-time victories. He was a black man at a black school, and some people weren’t going to like it when he passed Bear. Robinson seemed to be flirting with Alzheimer’s, which would plague his final years, when we chatted. But guess who spoke up for him?

Paterno, at age 56 and with 162 victories.

“I don’t care what league you’re in,’’ he said. “Anybody who resents Eddie’s moment of glory would be an awfully small person.”

In 2011, Paterno would tie Robinson’s all-time record and surpass it in his final game before he was fired.

Was it worth it?

For any of them?

When I was a senior football player at Northwestern in 1970, Paterno already seemed old to me. He was in his fifth year at Penn State, and he already had coached two undefeated teams.

I went to the Hula Bowl that year, and Paterno was the coach for the North team. He gave us a pregame pep talk, and it didn’t seem unusual or out of the norm.

His glasses were thick as jar bottoms, and I never dreamed he’d go out this way.

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