Death Comes to Happy Valley

Mahler’s clear-eyed story about Penn State coach Joe Paterno shows what can happen when a school and a community fall under the spell of a legend who was merely mortal.

  • Byliner Original
  1. The Coach was an old man, and like many old men, especially powerfully ones, he couldn’t imagine the world he had built going on without him.

    He wanted, it seemed, to coach forever.

    His great fear was that he would end up like one of his idols, Bear Bryant, who had died in 1983 only weeks after retiring from the University of Alabama. He was determined to prevent this from happening to him.

    But what happened to the Coach was much worse. He left the game he loved not on his own terms, as he had demanded days earlier, but on terms dictated by Penn State’s Board of Trustees—that is, he was fired. He was not under indictment, like the school’s athletic director, but he was enveloped in shame. He had fought hard, first to hold on to his power, then to at least fashion his own ending. But he had lost.

    He surfaced one final time, summoning a journalist, the Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins, to his home for an interview. The choice was deliberate. In the days after the scandal, she had been one of few high-profile columnists not to heap blame on him. Yet there was perhaps another reason, too: She was a link back to a different time, before his image had been complicated by history. Her father, Dan Jenkins, had been one of the first national sportswriters to make the pilgrimage to State College to see him, producing a charming Sports Illustrated portrait in 1968 of a dreamy, intellectual, unconventional but highly effective coach that helped launch a genre and build a mythology.


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