Congratulations are in order. The coach has just set the all-time mark in victories. What’s more impressive than the long list of victories however, is the way in which he did it. Over the last few decades he has done more than win games. He has molded men with class and dignity.
The coach has been the single most popular figure in the history of the university. But he has been more than popular. He is an almost mythic figure that has created a brand that goes beyond the sports field. The university is as much defined by his legacy and his sport as it is by any academic endeavor. He has stood for a strong ethic and moral decency. In an era when coach after coach goes on to the next big thing, he has remained a stalwart in the community and is an icon in the sport.
All the while, he has never been investigated by the NCAA. He did it the right way and for the right reasons. Everyone around him knows that he is about more than his sport. He is about more than wins and losses. He is about character, and molding boys into men. He is about dignity and respect and honor. For his efforts, he has legions of fans that love him. They honestly love him. They name their children after him. They dream of their sons playing for him someday.
Alas, Joe Paterno will not be coaching anymore because when he was presented with the biggest moral question he ever dealt with, he balked. He passed the buck. He missed an opportunity to bring a friend to justice and he failed all of those that ever loved him. He failed all of those that believed that he stood for anything more than wins and losses and image. I do not know Joe Paterno’s heart. I do not wish to be judged by my worst moment. I do not believe all the good he has done is wiped out because of his failure, but I think the Penn State scandal gives us a chance to step back for a moment and hold off on creating mythical figures out of mortal men.
Today, many are pouring adoration upon Mike Krzyzewski. The last few paragraphs, save the last, could as easily be about him as it was about Joe Pa. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t congratulate Coach K. What he has done at Duke is remarkable. It is unfair to Coach K to make any comparisons to Joe Pa right now, but this isn’t about Coach K.
This is about priorities and perspective. This is about idolatry. When we turn humans into mythical creatures, we will almost always be disappointed. The sports world is full of myth. Sports are full of heroes, villains, gods and devils. Maybe as sports fans we need to stop. Let’s stop making these people into more than they are. Maybe then the next time one fails it won’t hurt so much.
Some may say that I’m being cynical, but I don’t need sports figures to be my heroes. When I was a kid I loved Walter Payton. I cheered for him. I wanted to be like him, but he was never my hero. My heroes lived in my house. Let’s all just agree to be grown ups and stop idolizing people because they wear the right uniform or coach on our sideline. Let’s stop putting our faith into coaches and athletes.
As a Christian man, my faith belongs in one place. I still love sports. I love my teams. It matters to me if the Illini or Bears win or lose. But if sports start to come between me and my family, or me and my God, there’s a problem. Let’s stop believing that athletic prowess has any relation to moral righteousness, even (especially?) if said athlete points to the sky or bows on one knee in the middle of the game. It shouldn’t make us love our games any less, but if it does, maybe that’s a good thing.