Over the weekend, the college football world lost its winningest coach, Joe Paterno. Paterno was the head coach at Penn State until he was removed from his position this fall by university administrators in the midst a scandal involving a former assistant coach. This post is not about who is right and who is wrong, but rather the lesson learned in the career of JoePa.
In a great article in the Washington Post, we are reminded to remember all of the great things Paterno accomplished as a coach. He stuck to his guns, truly coached STUDENT athletes, created a football powerhouse out of nothing in State College, and won two national championships. However, even the greatest coach in college football was not immune to making a mistake.
Had that perspective gotten lost? Did Paterno feel that somewhere along the line, football had become too important — and somehow allowed a real tragedy to go overlooked?
“Well, I don’t think it got lost,” he said. “I just think there was a series of situations that maybe people, a little bit, maybe they neglected something, and maybe they got a little bit frustrated. Whether they had good intentions or not, you’d have to ask them.”
His record will show that he was a great, indomitable champion who amassed a record 409 victories, as well as an intelligent advocate who worked tirelessly for poor and minority athletes his whole career. It will show that he was utterly devoted to his players, regularly graduated more than 75 percent of them, and had 47 academic all-Americans. It will show that he made mistakes and omissions, one of them possibly truly costly. It will show that he mostly maintained his perspective and remained true to himself.
“He didn’t preach one thing and live a different way,” Sue said.
It will show that he was not a statue made of bronze, and that he was defined as much by what he failed to do and say, as by what he did. Which merely made him, in the end, human.
It is important for leaders to keep prospective. And while human error is always part of the equation, it is necessary to be aware of everything under your leadership to avoid irreversible errors that can end your career. As for Paterno, at least for now, an error has led one of the greatest leaders in his chosen profession to a legacy marred by the scandal under his leadership. And that is a shame.