Picture of Joe Paterno

Joe Paterno & Reputation: A Lesson for All of Us

Picture of Joe Paterno

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.



  1. Ryan Gerardi (@yhurg) · January 25, 2012

    Glad to see you write on the subject, Coreen. There are plenty of people on the blame-JoePa bandwagon and the accusation is that he remained silent…too silent. That bothers me too and I do not know JoePa like a Nittany Lion might, but I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt that he was unaware of the magnitude of Sandusky’s actions which is extremely difficult to imagine. Extremely. Is there really no more that JoePa could have done? The higher you go the harder you fall and this is a historical example of that.

    • ctmarcom · January 25, 2012

      Thanks, Ryan. I think I would feel differently if these allegations came out while Sandusky worked for Paterno. It is hard to believe no one caught on through all of those years. If the attorneys general involved didn’t pursue it, then that would discourage people coming forward too. I find it interesting too that JoePa is the only one who has publicly said he wished he would’ve done more–even though he did exactly what he was supposed to and didn’t realize the scope of the problem. Tom Corbett, Graham Spanier, Tim Curley and the others have all been silent and acted blameless. And yes, your last sentence sums it up, and that JoePa the perfect fall guy.

  2. Michael Shaw · January 25, 2012

    Coreen: This is an excellently written post. You express your perspective quite clearly. I agree with you that Joe Paterno, may he rest in peace, may have been a fall guy for the university, which is looking out for is own financial interests.

    However, in my judgment, our society puts too much stock in people who who have great achievements and who reach celebrity status. The media becomes the clergy and the masses virtually worship these people. It should not be surprising when they take a hard fall. And I am always skeptical of anyone who the media or society holds up as an example to be admired and emulated. The media makes them and the media breaks them. We, the unknown masses, don’t know these people. Achievement is not the same thing as moral goodness. My conclusion is always the same whenever a celebrity takes a fall from the heavens into the gutter: Who knows what really happened? Not me.

    • ctmarcom · January 25, 2012

      Thanks, Michael. I agree that we, as a society, do put too much stock in such celebrities, and I do think Paterno does deserve some of the criticism for not doing more. But, he did do exactly what he was supposed to and, sadly, that’s more than anyone else did. Having been at Main Campus for 4 years, I feel like I do have a better sense of who he is than people who never went to Penn State. I do admire Joe Paterno, the man and the coach, for the character and caring he demonstrated throughout the years. And your question “Who really knows what happened?” is exactly why I didn’t choose to write a diatribe about the whole case. I did read the grand jury report, but I too wonder how no one stopped Sandusky much earlier and did people really not know? The case is a big, sad mess, and it makes matters worse that the target of much venom is the “celebrity” and not the actual criminal.

  3. David T. Gould · January 25, 2012

    God Bless Joe. May he rest in peace. He did his best to keep a massive “institution” (football program) in order. I liken his job to that of any corporate CEO. He remained stout and never shunned his responsibilities. Those who so quickly lash out under the banner of being “for the children” should take more than a moment or two to do some research at just how many (it is disgusting) other individuals were in the know AND in a position to do something about it. God Bless Joe. May he rest in peace.

    • ctmarcom · January 25, 2012

      Thanks for commenting, David. This is definitely a charged topic and many people rush to judgment when emotions run high. Your point is a good one–how many people knew and did nothing. The janitor witness (and supervisor) is one I find particularly disturbing, yet most of the talk has centered around Joe Paterno, and that serves no one, especially not the victims. I think we’ll all be curious to hear the full truth when and if it ever comes out.

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