Joe Paterno died on the same day, January 22, as Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom. When Victoria passed 111 years earlier, it marked the end of a political and cultural era. Victoria reigned for 63 years as queen, spanning the Industrial Revolution, the zenith of the British Empire and internal political reforms that set the stage for modern social democracy.
Paterno reigned at Penn State, as an assistant and head coach, for a similar length of time, 61 years, and in his later tenure emerged as a quasi-monarchial figure over college football. As the Victorian era purported to uphold a moral code based on restraint — which in reality was not strictly followed — Paterno became a symbol of college football’s tradition and a spiritual leader for those who railed against the excess of the sport. That symbolism accelerated his fall from power last November when a scandal struck at the very core of Paterno’s morality. A football coach, unlike a monarch, cannot claim a divine mandate or a thousand-year-old hereditary right to protect himself from the consequences of his inaction.
Of course, as news of Paterno’s demise spread, the comparison most football observers drew was not a former British monarch, but a former football ruler, Bear Bryant. The legendary Alabama coach voluntarily retired after the 1982 season and died a month later, on January 26, 1983. ESPN broadcaster Brent Musberger noted in 2008 that Paterno told him he was “fearful” of dying like Bryant if he ever retired.
Unlike Paterno, however, Bryant’s death from a heart attack came as a complete shock. Paterno announced his cancer diagnosis shortly after his firing two months ago. In that sense, Paterno’s death echoes that of yet another football king, Vince Lombardi, who died within weeks of a cancer diagnosis that cut short his coaching comeback with the Washington Redskins.
To grasp the historical context of Paterno’s career at Penn State, consider that during his first season at the school, 1950, Bryant won his first SEC championship at Kentucky while Lombardi was an assistant on an Army team that finished the year ranked No. 2 in the country. Before taking over as Penn State’s head coach in 1966, Paterno was an assistant to Rip Engle, who had been his college coach at Brown. Engle’s college coach was Dick Harlow, who had played and coached at Penn State during the 1910s.
In Paterno’s first season as head coach, 1966, the NCAA had yet to adopt its current four-tier structure for football. The Ivy League was still considered a major conference, and no conference had more than 10 schools. Indeed, there were 32 schools with no conference affiliation at all (versus just four in 2011). Those independents included Penn State, which finished 5-5 Paterno’s first season.
Bear Bryant’s death in 1983 unofficially marked the start of an important transitional period in college football. The following year, the U.S. Supreme Court ended the NCAA’s television cartel, which opened the door for conferences to make their own deals and tap previously non-existent revenues. That in turn marked the end of the Independents, as schools like Penn State finally moved into conference play.
Taking Penn State into the Big 10 demonstrated Paterno’s adaptability in spite of his conservative reputation. Paterno, in fact, was early adapter when it came to television. He told a House subcommittee hearing — hastily called in wake of the Supreme Court decision — that it was television that enabled Penn State to gain valuable exposure in the 1950s and 1960s, which in turn facilitated his recruiting. Indeed, in those early days Penn State actually purchased airtime to broadcast home games.
Unfortunately, what undid Paterno at the end was his adherence to the ancient model of the university as a self-contained community. When a potentially devastating situation presented itself, Paterno stayed within the university bureaucracy and fell back on the notion that his first duty was to protect the legacy he had built at Penn State. If that sounds immoral or irrational, consider that universities have always considered themselves geographically independent of external civil authority. In Queen Victoria’s Britain, for example, universities elected their own members of the House of Commons (actually, this practice wasn’t abolished until 1950).
Twenty years earlier, the scandal that claimed Paterno might have played out differently. Social media wasn’t around to whip up mobs as quickly and furiously. Publicity-hungry prosecutors were only learning how to become all-powerful Gods themselves. And most importantly, the coach remained the focal point of the college football culture. You might argue, “It still is,” but in reality, the power has shifted from the coaches to the conferences. This is what we learned in the post-Bryant transition. The fact that a Joe Paterno could exist was a testament to a social structure where conference membership was optional. Coaches like Paterno and Bobby Bowden could take the time to build their reputations and internal political capital.
Today, the monarchial system Joe Paterno represented has morphed into a form of mercenary republicanism personified by the likes of Urban Meyer and Nick Saban. University leaders no longer view coaches as the most important decision with respect to football, but conference affiliation. When Texas A&M joined the SEC, the school’s chancellor said it was a “100-year decision.” He didn’t say that when they hired Kevin Sumlin as the new head coach.
When the 2012 college football season opens, the longest tenured major coach will be Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer, whose tenure dates back to 1987. The next longest tenured in the power conferences is Texas’ Mack Brown, on the sidelines since 1998. The majority of Division I FBS head coaches have only been on the job since 2008.
Just as Bear Bryant’s death preceded an era of major change in college football, Paterno’s death may do the same. This past season already claimed former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel and renewed the universal condemnation of the Miami program. The NCAA is showing strains of breaking apart. The association’s bureaucracy continues to gnaw away, even as the organization’s relevance continues the decline that began with the 1984 Supreme Court decision. The only thing keeping the NCAA together is the institutional fear of what might replace it.
Thirteen years after Queen Victoria’s death, World War I broke out among three countries nominally ruled by her grandchildren (King George V, the German Kaiser and the Russian Czar). Within a decade of Joe Paterno’s passing, we may finally see the radical change so many have clamored for in college football. It won’t be a literal war fought in trenches. It will involve an increased role for government agents, from local prosecutors sniffing out the next scandal to members of Congress looking to jump on the reform bandwagon. And it will definitely require a number of major football schools to reassess their approach to how to run a football program.
In many respects, Joe Paterno’s final legacy — outside the Penn State community, that is — will be an increased resolve by the football powers to ensure there is never another Joe Paterno. This isn’t about reducing Paterno’s career to a single scandal. It’s about recognizing the culture that produced Paterno no longer exists. That’s not to say the culture that’s now emerging will be better or worse. But it does mean everyone, including Penn State, will have to adapt.