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ESPN E60’s ‘Paterno Legacy’: A Long Story Told In Too Short A Window

Penn State Head Coach Joe Paterno
08 October 2011: Penn State Nittany Lions head coach Joe Paterno answers questions from the media following a game against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Beaver Stadium in University Park, PA. The Penn State Nittany Lions would defeat the Iowa Hawkeyes 13-3.

The story of the rise and fall of former Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno is captured in ESPN E60’s documentary “The Paterno Legacy,” but the documentary struggles to focus on a consistent topic in a short time frame.

It’s hard to tell a good story, and it’s significantly more challenging to tell a good story that practically everybody in the world already knows.

Challenging as it is, ESPN has pulled it off before with its documentaries. Two of the “worldwide leader’s” most critically acclaimed films were “O.J.: Made in America,” about the life of O.J. Simpson, and “The Last Dance,” about Michael Jordan.

Both documentaries covered people, topics, and stories that almost every sports fan and even many non-sports fans knew about but still were able to shed new light on.

Another thing both documentaries had in common— and part of what made them great— was that they were multi-parters, with Simpson’s story being five episodes and Jordan’s a whopping 10.

It’s not that The Paterno Legacy should have or even could have been between five and 10 parts, but it felt like more than just one roughly 48-minute feature was needed for the film to maximize its potential.

 Nittany Sports Now was given access to a screener cut of the documentary. ESPN noted that the screening NSN watched may be somewhat different than the one that premiers on TV Monday, April 18 at 8 p.m.

The documentary is solid from a production and interview standpoint, as is expected from an ESPN film. There are powerful moments, such as both former Penn State President Graham Spanier and former Penn State Vice President Gary Schultz fighting back tears when talking about the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal that, to many, damaged their legacies along with Paterno’s

Perhaps the most chilling moment in the documentary was a phone interview ESPN did with Sandusky, in which the convicted child molester predictably maintained his innocence.

Toward the end of the documentary, multiple Penn State students are interviewed and give varying perspectives of what they think Paterno’s legacy is. Everybody ESPN interviewed for the documentary— with the exception of current Penn State head coach James Franklin— gave some form of opinion on Paterno or at least provided a quote that helped illustrate Paterno’s significance.

The documentary had some good stuff, but there were also problems.

The Paterno Legacy is simultaneously precisely what the title sounds like and misleading. When word got out of the documentary’s premiere, I and probably most people figured it would be about Joe Paterno’s time as Penn State’s football coach and the scandal that abruptly ended Paterno’s 62-year coaching career. While it does that, one of the documentary’s core problems is that it doesn’t focus on one particular topic long enough to do the topic justice.

To understand why the Sandusky scandal became the biggest sports story in the world would be to know as much as possible about Paterno’s success, his personality and how he became one of the best college football coaches of all time.

To understand why Penn State fired Paterno would be to know as much as possible about Sandusky’s crimes, their impact on his victims and Paterno’s role in the whole thing.

Both topics are intertwined yet separate, and both are worthy of individual episodes or at least a documentary that’s longer than 48 minutes.

To me, that’s not enough time, and as a result, there wasn’t much new light shed on either Paterno’s time as head coach or the scandal that ended it.

I didn’t start watching The Paterno Legacy expecting an answer to “how should Joe Paterno be remembered?” 

After more than a decade, I think how people view Paterno now is how they will view Paterno for the rest of their lives. This documentary won’t change that.

What I was hoping for but also not necessarily expecting was for there to be moments where I said to myself, “huh. I never knew that.” And there might have been one or two, but not many.

Maybe that’s because I’ve been interested in Penn State football since I was born and watched multiple interviews/feature stories/documentaries on both Joe Pa and the Sandusky scandal and have read Joe Posnanski’s biography Paterno no fewer than five times. Still, it certainly felt like ESPN spent most of the documentary rehashing what most people already know.

The Paterno Legacy discusses both the positive and negative of Paterno’s life, which means Joe Pa’s defenders and detractors will likely be upset by some of what they see.

Overall, The Paterno Legacy isn’t a bad documentary, but it also isn’t one I plan to watch again.

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