Should There be an Asterisk by Joe Paterno’s Wins Record?
As new revelations continue to unfold in the Penn State saga concerning former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, the university’s perception continues to wilt. Perhaps the last, but most recent reputation and most notable reputation to go up in flames is that of legendary and once revered head coach Joe Paterno. Paterno was fired late last season after the allegations against Sandusky first broke. Paterno finished his career with 409 wins, a FBS record and died just two months after being fired. It was already known that Paterno failed to follow up on the Sandusky case after reporting a reported incident to the president of the Penn State University, but now, it has become evident that Paterno lied to cover it up. What was left of Paterno’s once great reputation is now tarnished and suddenly, none of his 409 wins seem to matter.
The record books will likely stay the same and it is highly unlikely that anyone will surpass Paterno’s 409 wins. There is no question that Paterno’s reputation took a hit, but how about his record? How legitimate is this record now? Will it continue to be honored or should Paterno’s 409 wins be regarded as former baseball great Barry Bonds’ 762 career home runs? With an asterisk. If so, that would make the all-time wins leader in the hearts and minds of college football fans, former Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden. But since we’re comparing Paterno to Bonds, that must make Bowden college football’s Hank Aaron.
For those of you who don’t know who Hank Aaron is, he was an outfielder for the Milwaukee and eventually Atlanta Braves. Aaron hit 755 home runs in his career beating the record of New York Yankee great and arguably to this day, the greatest baseball player ever in Babe Ruth, by 41 home runs. Aaron’s record lasted 31 years until Bonds bested it in 2007. Bonds never paid any penalty, but with some pretty convincing evidence and in the court of public opinion, Bonds was a steroid user making his record to many baseball purists void. While Aaron was regarded as one of the nicest guys the game had ever seen and beloved by baseball fans everywhere; the same was never true about Bonds.
10 years ago, the personalities of neither Bowden nor Paterno would likely have been compared to Bonds. They both appeared to be men with the character of Aaron and the admiration to boot. As far as the record was concerned, the race to be college football’s all-time wins leader lasted for much of the 1990s and even into the early millennium. The race between Bowden and Paterno went back and forth with Paterno ultimately winning the race after Bowden retired with 389 wins (now 377) following the 2009 season.
As a Florida State fan of 20 years and an alumnus of three, I was obviously in Bowden’s corner during the great years not only for FSU, but for Penn State as well. I, and I’m sure a number of other Florida State fans, were not terribly distraught when the race ultimately ended in Paterno’s favor. After all, if Bowden can’t hold the record, what better figure who seemingly did everything the right way was there to hold this record than Joe Paterno? At least, so we thought.
Not to take anything away from the real victims, the children who fell victim to sexual abuse at the hands of Sandusky, but I can’t imagine what fans and alumni who grew up watching Penn State must be feeling. I can only imagine that they felt the same way about Paterno as I did for Bowden. When it was learned that Bowden would not return for a 35th season at Florida State, that was a sad week in my house. I still get a little choked up thinking about him walking out onto the field for his final game, the Gator Bowl, following the 2009 season. But Bowden was more than just a coach you pulled for to help your favorite team win games, bowls and championships. He was the type of man that you would model your life after. I’m sure people who grew up with Penn State football felt the same about JoePa and now to find out that was all a lie, must be crushing. While those in Bowden’s corner obviously wanted Bowden to be perceived as the holder of the all-time wins record, no one would have wanted it to come like this.
As far as the record is concerned, there can be genuine debate as to how legitimate this record remains. Paterno never cheated to get an advantage on the field, but what if Sandusky’s actions publicly come to light when is it first known by Paterno and the university in 1998? How much longer would Paterno have coached? What was known before 1998? How many eventual great defensive players came to Penn State to play for Sandusky? Even if this came to surface in 1998 and this truly was the first ever known incident by Paterno or the university, how many eventual recruits still sign there? There are so many factors that may have changed if Paterno, who according to everyone who knew him was a good man, simply told the truth.
Paterno’s record will likely hold up, but what is for sure is that his infallible image will not. Rather than being regarded as one of the good guys to ever roam the sideline, Paterno’s image will be forever tarnished for his failure to speak and protect children from a monster. His wins record could be to college football what Barry Bonds’ home run record is to baseball. Paterno will likely no longer be seen as a guy who did things the right way. His persona, even in death, has dramatically changed. The difference between Paterno and Bonds however is a major one. Bonds only hurt the integrity of Major League Baseball with his actions. Paterno’s failure to act not only hurt the university he loved, his image, the fan base and his family. But how many heinous acts of Sandusky could have been averted had Paterno only spoken up?
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