When Joe Paterno was fired from Penn State Football and used as a scapegoat for the failings of several Penn State administrators, I stayed quiet. This blog was not the place for that discussion.
Now that Coach Paterno has died, I feel like I must say something. His story gives us valuable lessons in character and in reputation (or what we marketers call brand). What’s scary is his story also teaches us how forces much greater than ourselves can disrupt and seriously damage your brand, your reputation, and you may not be able to do much about it.
That’s why character and consistency matter most. Stay true to who you are at all times and people respond well to that, especially in crisis.
As a former Penn Stater, I can tell you that Joe Paterno was a man of outstanding character. His name, his presence, his influence was everywhere at that institution. And he quietly gave money, time or advice to almost anyone who needed it.
For the past few months, Penn State University has been trying to destroy that brand, that man. Why? To protect their own asses and because they know the most visible man at that school is JoePa—a man big enough to hide behind. Despicable that they decided to do that and worse that ESPN, Sports Illustrated and other prominent news organizations fed the fire.
There is no evidence that Joe Paterno did anything wrong. There’s no evidence he knew what Sandusky was doing while employed under him. He was not the man who gave Sandusky permission to use Penn State facilities after retiring. He didn’t witness anything and did exactly what he was supposed to do when Mike McQueary, the actual witness, gave him an incomplete recount of what he saw. But, when you listen to the Board, to ESPN, Sports Illustrated or the news, they all focus on Paterno.
And what did Paterno do? He stayed quiet. He stayed true to his character and his focus on others and reminded people that he would be okay, just “pray for those kids.” Classic JoePa. For as much positive attention as he always received, he also always deflected it and gave credit to others or downplayed his influence.
Urban Meyer, talking to ESPN after Paterno’s death, mentioned a rumor that Paterno kept a rotary phone. The lesson? To take time, take a deep breath before you react to something. Wise advice—something Joe Paterno was full of.
O.J. McDuffie (former PSU wide receiver) recounted memories of a “father figure” who turned boys into men and remembered everything that was important in your life.
Adam Taliaferro (former PSU football player) spoke of a “caring, honest man” who “always had your best interest at heart.”
This is not a man who would knowingly let someone he knew harm others—especially kids. This is not a man who deserved to be disowned by the very institution he helped build.
Paterno had every right to lash out, to blast the Board and the school for its own inaction and for their recent decisions. Every news outlet around mentioned his name more closely with child molestation than they did Jerry Sandusky’s.
Students rioted, alumni lashed out at the Board, yet Joseph Vincent Paterno—staying true to who he was and confident in his own character and the reputation he built—stayed quiet. Even when Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post gave him the opportunity to bash his detractors, he stayed classy and respectful. One final tremendous lesson he granted us all in the days before passing away.
There’s enough yelling and finger-pointing in this world, and it’s making us all ugly. Coach Paterno knew the secret to being a beautiful human being. He wasn’t perfect, but he was perfectly true. We Penn Staters don’t worship him, we admire him, know him and love him. He earned that in word and deed.
He said, “Believe deep down in your heart that you’re destined to do great things.” I would add, “and don’t worry what anyone else thinks. Just stay consistent and true to you and your own heart.” And maybe get a rotary phone.
The Paterno family as a whole has shown how full of class they are. Read their statement on Joe Paterno’s death. Note they ask that in lieu of flowers, they ask that donations be made to Special Olympics of Pennsylvania or Penn State’s THON fundraiser for kids with cancer.