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Mythologizing Joe Paterno

Posted by Ron George on November 12, 2011

Penn State Head Coach Joe Paterno: Truly legendary

I told my breakfast buddy Fred the other day that I had grown up admiring Joe Paterno, the truly legendary Penn State head football coach fired this week for his feckless response nine years ago to an eyewitness report of child sexual abuse by his retired defensive coordinator.

Trouble is, it wasn’t true.

I had mythologized my father’s admiration for Paterno into something woven into my early memories of watching college football with Dad in the late 1950s, when we lived in Arlington, Va. I had told myself for years that this was true, and that it had shaped my attitudes about the game and the proper conduct and disposition of coaches and players alike. I had even conjured images of those white-helmeted players and their geeky coach taking the field and winning football games, as Dad reminded me again and again that Paterno stood head and shoulders above all others for insisting that his athletes be scholars and gentlemen on and off the field. All of these images had us in the living room of our home in Virginia.

Paterno, though, didn’t become head coach at Penn State until 1966, the year after my football career ended at a high school in California. It was true that Dad admired Paterno and that he never failed to say something about his honorable conduct, and it’s true that I’ve admired Paterno, too, primarily on the strength of Dad’s witness. As for Paterno’s being a childhood icon of mine; well, I made it up and so persuasively that I fooled even myself.

It comes as some relief to know that this sort of thing happens all the time to creatures with human brains. Science tells us that memories are malleable, that we reconstruct them, bit by bit over time, into narratives that not only make sense of the past but also conform to whatever immediate psychological need we have in the moment to tell this or that story in a specific way. It’s one of the reasons eyewitness testimony is the least reliable form of evidence in a criminal trial – because we humans are susceptible to the power of suggestion in the shaping of our recollection. We change our minds constantly by changing our stories, by interpreting and reinterpreting our experience in ways that help us adjust to change.

Paterno's Legacy, by Gary Varvel

Still, this myth of Paterno really took me by surprise. I didn’t just reconstruct a memory, I created this story almost from scratch by composing scraps of authentic memories and imagining film clips of things that never happened. (Dad and I did watch a lot of football together in Virginia, but it wasn’t Penn State, and it wasn’t Joe Paterno.) Maybe I’m just showing my age, but I believed this amalgam for decades of my life. I wonder whether there’s more to this than aging gray matter. What’s with me and Joe Paterno, anyway?

Paterno always has embodied values I have known from childhood, but those values were enunciated by my father not the Penn State coach. It wasn’t just about football, either, but the type of man my generation of boys was expected to become – like our fathers who came home from World War II: strong, silent, competent gentlemen who didn’t talk trash, didn’t dance in the end zone, didn’t raise the roof when the other team was at the foul line and didn’t lie, cheat or steal – ever.

It was a great generation but not always compassionate and just. It discriminated against minorities and women, it was fond of witch-hunts and scare tactics and content with profound economic disparities. It expected us to conform, but many of us refused. The world gained a lot from our generation’s movements advocating for the rights of minorities, women, the handicapped and the poor and opposing wrongheaded wars. We seemed to have lost our way, however, when it comes to civility, decency and what we used to call sportsmanship. Nowadays, winning at all costs is everything and not at all how one plays the game; and it’s the norm not only in athletics but also in business and politics. It breeds an attitude ancient Greeks called hubris, the kind of overweening arrogance that gets in your face and dances in the end zone.

Young Joe Paterno: Early years at Penn State

There’s a jumble of myths in all this – of the strong, silent type, of 20th-century reform and protest movements – but it all seems to be a kind of truth in trying to tease out the threads of my recollection to discover why I wanted Joe Paterno to be my childhood hero and not just an admirable coach of a sport that I would reject in later life as tiresome, over-hyped and harmfully violent.

Paterno’s career as head coach at Penn State began just as my father’s and my paths were diverging in almost every way. Dad was at the end of his military career, and I was just leaving home for college, where I partook of the spirit of the age. I entered two professions over his opposition, journalism and Christian ministry. I became politically liberal as he became more conservative. He was a lifelong sports fan, especially of football and baseball, while I became indifferent to both – and yet, watching a game together was something we could do without disagreement. Our common values were those of the head coach at Penn State: We railed against cheats, self-absorbed athletes and coaches and fans for whom no outrage was beyond the pale in support of their teams. We admired the few class acts; and in Paterno’s case, we embraced the myth of St. Joe of State College, Pa.

Maybe that’s where it all began, the Myth of St. Joe that bound my father and me in common values both of us saw crumbling amid the media-driven hype of big-time college athletics. Perhaps it was my yearning not only for a more seemly athletic environment but also for common ground with Dad that drove my unconscious fabrication of the Myth of St. Joe as a childhood hero whose values shaped my life. I don’t know. Maybe I am just getting old. (Y’think?)

Paterno’s disgrace won’t change my values regarding the honorable pursuit of sport as well as other aspects of life in society. I’ll have to dump the myth of childhood influence but certainly not the role Paterno’s values played in keeping my father and me on the same page in at least one aspect of our disparate lives. Paterno’s firing this week was heart-breaking but correct. St. Joe had to go. By his own rules of conduct, he should have done more – all he could have done – but didn’t, and so he had to be benched.

Dad wasn’t here to see it, but I know we would have agreed on that, too.


3 Responses to “Mythologizing Joe Paterno”

  1. racunovodstvo…

    […]Mythologizing Joe Paterno « The pelican papers[…]…

  2. Jim Abbott said

    Thanks for a thoughtful post. Makes me wonder what myths I’ve created.
    The generation that returned from WWII came back to a nation that had no where near the disparity in income we see today. Yes, racism was an ugly fact and the economic side of that hurt minority families. But the “Golden Parachute” was not invented until later. Your other observation about loss of civility is right on, but I think the war in Vietnam and civil rights movement played a part. Those of our generation saw civility as a thin and deceptive cover for the evils of racism and the stupidity of the war. So we went too far the other way.

  3. Thanks for this thoughtful post. While my father and I didn’t have quite the same dynamic as you had with yours, I recognize a kinship. On my blog I’ve been thinking about Paterno in terms of Aristotle’s framework of tragedy ( but your personal reflection seems more meaningful. By the way, you may want to check out Joe Posnanski’s blog on–he has been writing a biography of Paterno, and has some good insights into the meaning of all this.

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