Over the course of the last few months, it has seemed like everyone in State College has a personal Coach Paterno story. My interactions with him during the last 17 years were limited and superficial. But I’ve come to know a number of the people whose lives he impacted, mostly football players who attended Calvary, coaches who were a part of the staff, and a few Penn State leaders who worked with him.
The legacy he left was in the lives he impacted far more than in the games he won. As a leader who tries to learn from those around me, the topic of interest for me regarding Coach Paterno is this: “What does it take for us to leave that kind of legacy, live that kind of life?” What are the lessons people have learned from the school of Paterno?
One of the lessons that I gleaned from all the stories that I’ve heard — including those shared during the memorial service — has to do with the value of having “a long commitment in one place.” I think we understand the value of a long commitment. We can rarely accomplish all we imagine in a short period of time, but can often accomplish far more than we can imagine over a long period of time.
But Coach Paterno had more than a long commitment to a family, to a career, or even to a way of life. He had a long commitment to a way of life in one place. Yes it is rare for a man to coach for so long, but it’s unheard of that a coach would stay in one place for so long. One home. One team. One city. One place.
The ethos of America celebrates the pioneer. I do as well. Pioneers make an impact of a particular kind, but we need not allow the value of pioneers to diminish the value of the settlers. Coach Paterno would often say, “You don’t have to leave State College to make an impact on the world.” We can have the impact of a pioneer while embracing the heart of a settler.
I think American Christians have a weak theology of place. We follow the career. We move for adventure or just to get a fresh start in life. But from God’s perspective, place is not incidental to our calling to impact the world. In fact I could make a good theological argument that when it comes to calling, place is even more important than career. God calls us to love the city to which He calls us and it is within our community that we live out that calling.
In the last few months, it has been interesting to note the difference in responses to articles about Paterno, between those in the community and those outside the community. (And to be clear Coach Paterno’s community includes the alumni of Penn State and all those who live in the Centre Region.) Those outside the community simply cannot understand the protective nature of the responses coming from those within the community.
But it really isn’t that difficult to understand. For the students he was a grandfather, for the players he was a coach/mentor, for those in College Heights he was a neighbor, for the community he was a man committed to his city/university. A long-time commitment to doing good, lived out in one place, will bring that kind of response.
The church might take note.