For Washington area graduates and fans of Penn State University, the death of legendary football coach Joe Paterno unleashed a flood of conflicting emotions. Grief and affection mixed with embarrassment and anger as people struggled to frame the loss of a great man whose star had suddenly plummeted to earth.
“I’m still in shock,” said Max Ashcraft, 24, a recent Penn State graduate who lives in Arlington. “Joe Paterno was synonymous with Penn State, and nothing that happened can take that away, but his legacy will be tainted for some time. The Paterno era has now officially ended, and the landscape will be very different.”
Many fans felt robbed of the chance to fully mourn Paterno, but they were not sure where to put the blame. Paterno, 85, an icon of college football for nearly half a century, died Sunday after a long battle with lung cancer and months of controversy over a sexual abuse scandal involving a longtime assistant coach on his staff. The scandal led to Paterno being fired two months ago.
Steve Perry, 22, a classmate of Ashcraft having brunch with friends at Union Jack’s British pub in Ballston, said much of the boundless pride he once felt in his alma mater and its football father figure had now been replaced by bitterness and shame.
“This is very upsetting to all of us,” Perry said. “Penn State was everything to JoePa, and if you were part of the Penn State family, he loved you. But now his positive impact for so many years will be overshadowed.”
Other fans, especially older alumni, either leaped to defend the coach or were too grief-stricken to articulate how they felt. Mary Ann Smith, a 1983 graduate and homemaker from Arlington, described Paterno as “a special person who cared about the whole university and its students,” not just about football.
“It’s like the death of a family member,” Smith said. “I think there has been a rush to judgment, but I hope history will give him his due.”
At Bailey’s Pub and Grill in the Ballston Common Mall on Sunday afternoon, giant TV screens showed a live basketball game between Penn State and Indiana University, interspersed with news bulletins of Paterno’s death and interviews with students on the Penn State campus next to a statue of Paterno.
Adam Tracz, 24, an accountant and Virginia Tech graduate from Arlington who said he had admired Paterno for years, said he believes the former coach “died of a broken heart,” losing the will to live after his career, reputation and health collapsed in a matter of months.
“If he had died today, and there had been no scandal, there would be a lot more fanfare,” Tracz said. “You can’t take away the good he did, but you can’t separate the good from the awful either. It will follow him forever, and he will never have a chance to redeem himself.”
The Car Pool billiards and sports pub, a third Ballston bar known as a Penn State hangout, was nearly empty as several lone fans, nursing beers while waiting for the Ravens-Patriots football game, said they had heard the news but did not want to comment. One man throwing darts was reticent at first, but then began venting.
“I’m sad about it, but I also think he should have had to face the music,” said Kurt Rader, 29, a graduate student at the University of Maryland. “To many people Joe Paterno was a godlike figure, but it seems like he turned a blind eye for such a long time to what was going on. He was a phenomenal man for 46 years, but I wish this situation could have played out in the justice system and come to a close. I feel like he got off the hook a little.”
But Pat Dunne, an Arlington nonprofit manager and 2004 Penn State graduate who is the Washington area vice president of its alumni association, said Paterno had built a career based on the values of “success with honor.” Despite the recent months of controversy, Dunne said: “I hope and believe he will be remembered for the way he challenged all Penn State students, athletes and alumni to live up to those values, to be the best people we can.”