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Joe Paterno death evokes mixed emotions

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 8:10AM

Until the last few months, Joe Paterno was the model for college coaching excellence. He won games, turned out good citizens and maintained an unassuming charm and wit.

The last few months, of course, changed that legacy immeasurably. Forever. And for good reason.

There can be no excuses for looking the other way, as Paterno did. I still don’t understand how he could ignore such unspeakable allegations.

The Paterno I knew wouldn’t do that. I may not have known him well, but having been around him for nearly three decades, I knew him well enough.

That’s why it’s difficult to sum up feelings today. When an otherwise admirable man dies with the news of a horrible sin of omission still fresh, what are we to think?

For the young tweeters, it’s black and white: Bad old guy who failed to stop alleged child rape dies. Hurrah!

For those of us who have been around longer, especially those of us who have been around Paterno a bit, it’s not so easy.

It’s more plausible that he was willing to overlook Jerry Sandusky’s alleged behavior for the sake of the program than to believe he didn’t know what was going on. Another theory says Paterno’s unforgivable neglect was partly a generational thing — that people of his age group ignored sexual abuse.

Whatever the explanation, what happened on Paterno’s watch is tragic for the victims. And sad for Paterno, his family and his legacy.

In recent years, he has been viewed as a doddering old coach who seemed to be dozing off, headphone-less, in the coaches’ booth, his body too weak for him to stand on the sideline.

He should’ve retired. But I never thought he would. He had seen his good friend Bear Bryant retire and die. Like the Bear, JoePa lived to coach.

A few years ago, doing a story about Penn State quarterback Anthony Morelli, who’d mentioned a love of fishing, I asked Paterno if he had any hobbies such as fishing.

‘‘Nah,’’ he said. ‘‘When my kids were young, I used to take them fishing at a fish hatchery. The water’d be black with fish, and nobody’d catch a damn thing.’’

Paterno wasn’t all X’s and O’s, though. At my first encounters with him nearly 30 years ago, on Friday nights before Notre Dame played at Penn State, he’d visit with the media — and have fun, smart conversations with us. During a time when the Soviet bloc was in turmoil, he’d join right in when we’d start applying football terms — blitzing, sacking — to some European confrontation.

He also asked an amazing number of questions and genuinely listened to the answers. Of sportswriters.

None of this mitigates what Paterno did or didn’t do for however many decades the alleged predator horrors were going on.

But it does make me wonder how a seemingly good man could end up in such a wrong place.

The only thing I can think of is that we let football coaches — even legends — accumulate way too much power.

Paterno should’ve retired years ago because he wasn’t capable of dealing with an incredible outside-the-box situation. Pass it along to his superiors? Paterno had no superiors.

With all of his accomplishments, he wielded the power, not an athletic director or university president.

A younger coach would’ve seen the alleged horror for what it was and vehemently attacked it. An aging legend, for one pathetic reason or another, ignored the monster.

I can condemn him for that. I just can’t hate him the way some people do.

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