Joe Paterno’s complicated legacy and role in the Jerry Sandusky scandal has been well documented to this point, now two years and a day since Paterno’s death. Opinions are varied and truths and facts are seemingly few and far between.
For Bill O’Brien, Paterno was an elephant in the room. Following Paterno was hard enough on its own, let alone a scandal to muddy the waters. Add in the demands of fans to honor Paterno or just move on from the whole saga, O’Brien couldn’t win. Talk too much about Paterno and “O’Brien is focused on the past.” Not enough talk about Paterno and” O’Brien is running away from the program’s tradition.”
If O’Brien’s alleged frustration with “Paterno People” was at all accurate, it may have been the slow understanding that he was never going to be able to fight for both sides of the aisle. O’Brien wanted to coach, he didn’t want to be a peacemaker.
But for James Franklin, this debate is nothing he hasn’t been able to navigate so far. His vision for Penn State’s future has cut through a smog of circular arguments and drama that has ironically festered much longer in State College than the national media outlets that supposedly got the ball rolling.
While Franklin and O’Brien both took over the program at very different times –both internally and externally– even in the early going it is apparent that Franklin is taking a very different approach to the “Paterno situation.” Where his predecessor had to dance around the conflict, Franklin is walking right up to it and smiling.
“The healing process is why I’m here,” Franklin said when he was introduced. “It’s why we’re all here, to bring this great university back together and try to unite the former players, the current players, the alumni, all the people. Because I think that is the reality is everybody just takes great pride in this university and they want to see it great in everything, academically, athletically, socially, spiritually, the whole package.”
“[I have] tremendous respect for Joe Paterno and what he did here and how he built this program. I think that the biggest thing is what I said before is that everybody is so passionate and has such strong opinions because they care so much about this university and what it stands for. I think the fact that they have someone sitting in this role right now that cares just as much about it as they do, I think is important.”
In total, Franklin would mention the Paterno name on four different occasions during his introductory remarks with great admiration each time. Franklin even went as far as to tweet on Wednesday and recognize the two-year anniversary of Paterno’s death. He also Tweeted:
— James Franklin (@coachjfranklin) January 22, 2014
So why this approach?
Simply put, Franklin has everything to gain. While O’Brien was in place to put out fires, Franklin is at Penn State to handle reconstruction. A unified university and forward thinking program is in his own best interests. While critics may shake their heads at a public show of support for Paterno, Franklin knows that the only people he really has to sell himself to are fans and recruits. Everyone else is just noise. And frankly, everyone else has moved on.
So while Franklin’s point blank honoring of Paterno might pop up in an article or two in the negative light, Franklin seemingly doesn’t care. Not everyone wants a statue of Paterno returned, but plenty of people would like to see him honored or in the very least acknowledged without so much trepidation from university officials. So far, Franklin has delivered on that front.
There is no way of knowing how long Franklin will take this route or how he really feels about Paterno, but it’s likely in the best interest of the program to stop skirting the issue.
And if it’s in the best interest of the program it doesn’t look like Franklin is going to back down from it any time soon.