By: Tom Malone
Legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, 85, died of lung cancer complications Sunday morning. His career exemplified coaching with integrity and winning with honor. Unfortunately, a sex abuse scandal involving staff member Jerry Sandusky left a mark on Paterno’s legacy.
His death presents an interesting public relations dynamic. How will Penn State deal with the legacy of Paterno?
Prior to the Sandusky episode, Penn State reveled in the image of Paterno. The administration backed his every decision. When competing universities fired old-school motivators and hired new coaches with fresh schemes and strategies, Penn State stuck to its tradition. Paterno was the face of Penn State.
Then the Sandusky allegations began to surface the week before Senior Day. With a few weeks left in what would be his final season, Paterno’s impeccable multi-decade career crashed. The Penn State administration handled the situation rather poorly from a public relations standpoint by hiding portions of the truth, then firing Paterno by phone. The victims and families pressed on to ensure that the facts appeared.
Weeks after the college football season ended, Paterno passed away, proving that football was one of his driving life forces. He will always be remembered as a legend, but how impactful will the asterisk by his name be?
As the shock of his passing gradually blows over, which direction will the story of Paterno’s legacy go? The Penn State administration and public relations team will play a large role in determining this. ESPN, the sports journalism juggernaut, will look to this source in the coming weeks in order to shape the manner in which Paterno is remembered throughout mass media.
Public events and speakers at various memorial services will play a significant role in the media coverage that his passing receives. Only Penn State can determine the level of legend and legacy that Paterno will have in the years to come.