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Expediting the Inevitable: "Pop" Goes Paterno

Paint yourself a picture in your mind. (I would say "close your eyes, but that would remove your ability to read, so scratch that.) You have a good friend, someone you have known since you were younger. For the past ten, fifteen or twenty years, the two of you have lived near one another, done everything together, and folks often joke that the two of you are practically siblings because you are so close-knit.

Now keep picturing: someone comes to you and says that this friend of yours, whom you've known practically your whole life, has done something blatantly and morally reprehensible, something flat-out (or even just borderline) illegal. How would you respond? Wouldn't you just be in disbelief, at how diametrically opposed this news is to everything you know (or think you know) about this friend from all the time you have known each other? Wouldn't your reaction, since this is a person you have known forever and trust, be to go to them, ask them whether rumor was truth, and possibly even take their word for it if they passed it off as rumor?

It doesn't matter whose yard you're in - if you dig long enough, you're going to find a skeleton, even in the well tended, long-standing yard that is Penn State head coach Joseph Vincent Paterno.

I had to take a few days to let everything that happened (and everyone's knee jerk responses) process through my brain so that I could do my best to write this with some perspective, rather than as a defensive, die-hard Penn State fan. I am certainly in agreement with ESPN's Matt Millen on this one (as odd as that is to admit): my gut reaction is certainly to come to Paterno's defense, but it is more important to just take a look at the big picture since Joe, like every other American citizen, has earned the right to due process.

Let's be honest here - this season was the last under Paterno's current contract, and sentiment has gradually been shifting from a man who was still going strong despite his doubters to an increasingly more frail old man who was gradually becoming more of a figurehead in the program. This is not entirely untrue, if exaggerated. Paterno long ago began sharing and passing along offensive playcalling duties to his son Jay, allowed defensive coordinator Tom Bradley to be more of the lead disciplinarian in practices. All of this was a long established plan of his to, as he put it long ago, make sure that the program was in the best possible position to succeed going forward whenever he chose to step down.

Just within the last five years, Paterno has been accused of being insensitively sexist, a curmudgeonly traffic stickler, and a shoddy in-house disciplinarian. None of these are completely accurate either, but all were relatively brushed aside as a goofy old man who was great for an interview sound byte, knew how to win, and had a very different and/or old school approach to doing things. As much as these new revelations hurt, they make sense with a man who didn't just have a unique modus operandi, but who never really updated his world view or behaviors to keep up with the times,even if an updated office might have fooled us.

Would Paterno have returned after this season if all of this mess hadn't been pulled back from under the rug? Possibly. Another short contract, another "we'll play it by ear" type press conference, with an even shorter you-better-keep-winning-or-else style leash. Instead, he will most definitely not return, and the program as a whole will probably be better for it. As Ivan Maisel put it, his age was certainly a concern to those around him, we just never expected it to be his downfall off the field first.

I certainly feel for all of the youth that Jerry Sandusky has victimized, and am loathe to even acknowledge his status as a human being, but what concerns me more is Joe. In previous interviews of his, it was apparent to me that one of the biggest reasons that Paterno had not headed off into the realm of retirement is that he had been coaching football for so long, it was the only thing he could say he knew how to do. When you have the same exact routine for 45 years and counting, it becomes who you are.

Now Joe faces a double whammy. First, he now faced with the daunting task of the uncertainty that retirement presents. He has to find something else to give his life meaning. 2012 will be the first time in sixty-two years that his daily routine hasn't involved waking up, getting dressed, and heading over to Beaver Stadium to continue the process of recruiting, coaching, and molding young men into mature individuals and talented football players. What is he if he isn't "Coach JoePa"? Not only that, but more importantly he may have to re-evaluate himself. Does this current maelstrom of public sentiment cause him to question whether he was really as great a coach as he always thought? What might that do for both his physical and mental well-being and that of his wife, Sue?

As I said, this latest development isn't really the dagger of death so much as it's the catalyst of the inevitable, and when viewed as a whole Paterno's stubborn old-school ways were likely what backed him into this corner of having to choose retirement rather than being talked into it. I wish Joe luck with whatever he decides to occupy his time with, and I hope that those who view him in historical retrospect make sure to remember everything he has done for Pennsylvania State University as a whole, and not just absurdly pigeonhole him as some conniving old villain who was trying to protect his "Precious" from the big bad world.

Good luck to the next man (likely Tom Bradley) who steps into Joe's coaching shoes and attempts to finish fine-tuning the empire that Joseph Vincent Paterno spent his entire adult life building. No pressure.