At the end of his life, there were only two ways to view Joe Paterno. One camp suspected that Paterno, the most important and powerful person on Penn State's campus, had to have been involved in the cover-up of Jerry Sandusky's crimes. The other merely hoped his name would stay far enough removed to protect his lifelong legacy of good work.
But only one of those sides is going to exist soon, and the winningest coach in college football history is not only going to be synonymous with Penn State's shame, but perhaps culpable in its crimes.
Paterno is no longer here to explain himself. He died in January at age 85, acknowledging in his final days that he should have done more after assistant coach Mike McQueary told him he had witnessed Sandusky assaulting a 10-year-old boy in February 2001. But Paterno, both under oath and in his last public comments, insisted that after passing the information to senior Penn State officials, he was never involved in the school's investigation of Sandusky that allowed him to continue operating as a sexual predator for several more years.
Now, Paterno is on the verge of forever being viewed as something different. Not just an old man who didn't understand the gravity of the situation or the depth of depravity McQueary had seen. Not just a football coach who considered himself ill-equipped to deal with something of this nature.
Not just a school employee who did the minimum amount to avoid being legally, if not morally, culpable.
After Friday night's explosive CNN report of an e-mail exchange between university president Graham Spanier, vice president Gary Schultz and athletic director Tim Curley, Paterno no longer looks like any of those things. If this is true, Paterno is forever a phony at best; the embodiment of Penn State's evil at worst.
According to CNN, Schultz sent Curley an email on Feb. 26, 2001, outlining a plan to deal with the Sandusky allegations that McQueary had first brought to Paterno. The key parts of that plan were contacting the Department of Welfare and the chairman of the Second Mile organization, the children's charity Sandusky used to recruit his victims.
If Penn State officials had followed that plan, Sandusky probably would have been stopped right then and there. They were on the verge of doing the right thing.
But another email came the following day, this one from Curley to Schultz and Spanier, and suddenly Penn State was about to change course.
"After giving it more thought and talking it over with Joe yesterday, I am uncomfortable with what we agreed were the next steps. I am having trouble with going to everyone but the person involved. I would be more comfortable meeting with the person and tell them about the information we received and tell them we are aware of the first situation," the email said, according to CNN.
This, admittedly, is an incomplete account of the events that led Penn State officials to change their minds on going to the authorities. But at minimum, it suggests that not only was Paterno in the loop on what Penn State planned to do with Sandusky, he exerted some level of influence on how to handle his former defensive coordinator and friend. Essentially, after Paterno weighed in, Curley had decided that all Sandusky needed was a good talking-to.
We know now what a massive mistake that was. Sandusky was convicted June 22 on 45 counts of child molestation, and both Curley and Schultz are preparing for trial on charges that they lied to the state grand jury investigating Sandusky. Spanier was fired in November.
Not only is the CNN report devastating to Curley, Schultz and Spanier, but it brings back to life all the questions about Paterno's role.
Remember, at the time McQueary came to him, Penn State was coming off a 5-7 season, triggering doubts about Paterno's age (74 at the time) and the program's stability. The revelation that Sandusky, a 30-year assistant, had been molesting boys in the Penn State locker room probably wouldn't have played well.
Did Paterno suggest a different course of action to Curley because he feared how it might look, that it might cost him his job? Did administrators go along with it because Paterno was a legend, because he was the most powerful figure in the history of school?
Maybe we'll never know. Maybe Penn State's internal investigation, headed by former FBI director Louis Freeh, will provide more information and context when its findings are released within the next month. Paterno's family attorney released a statement to CNN reiterating that Paterno testified truthfully in front of the grand jury.
But the credibility of that testimony is withering now. And the Paterno we hoped we knew, the Paterno that his sycophants so desperately want us to remember, is probably gone forever.