Who Can Replace Our Icons?

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We finally got the official word yesterday morning that Joe Paterno had passed away, after a few erroneous reports as early as Saturday night. When it was confirmed, it made me think about those that have been icons throughout my life, how quickly they are vanishing and who might be waiting to replace them. This doesn’t just apply to the IZOD IndyCar Series, motorsports or sports in general. It applies to all of the great individuals from the twentieth century that we are losing.

There are those that say that Joe Paterno was no icon. To them I say how sadly mistaken they are. This was a man who gave his entire life to making an impact on young men’s lives. After serving in World War II, he had been destined to become an attorney after graduating from Brown University. When he told his father, Angelo, the disappointing news that he was eschewing that profession to become a football coach instead, the father gave him one bit of advice: whatever you do, make an impact.

For the sixty-one years that he was on the coaching staff at Penn State, he did just that. When he became the head coach beginning in 1966 and for the next forty-six years that he was the head coach; Joe Paterno taught the young men that he coached so much more than blocking and tackling. He taught them lessons in life. He mentored them from age eighteen to twenty-two. In that time he expected them to grow, mature, get their degree and leave the institution as men. Men who would go out into their communities and lead productive lives.

Listen to any of the hundreds of men who played under Joe Paterno and you hear stories of love and respect. They loved the man. They don’t speak of how he made each one a better football player, rather how he made them better people. His emphasis was on character and education. He and his wife gave millions to the university – not to the athletic department, but to libraries and educational facilities.

That’s why I found it so despicable when I scoured the internet for reaction to his death. Although he had only been dead for a couple of hours, there were those who vilified him for the horrible crimes allegedly done by a former assistant coach. Others questioned why so much attention was given to a man involved in nothing more than a game. I have no answers for the latter camp. They obviously don’t understand sports. For the former group; legally, Coach Paterno did nothing wrong by passing the information he had along to his supervisors. Could he have done more? Certainly, and Coach Paterno acknowledged that himself. I have read the entire Grand Jury indictment. I feel certain that many of those so willing to sack Coach Paterno last November cannot make that statement.

After reading what I read, it’s easy to say what one should or would do. Looking back, he could’ve done much more. But faced with the same scenario without the luxury of hindsight, I can’t honestly say I would have done anything different than what Coach Paterno did. Does that make it right? No, but it makes it easier to understand why he acted as he did. He didn’t ignore what happened. He reported it to the proper channels and assumed they would act prudently. They didn’t.

The self-righteous who are obviously completely without sin or any mistakes in their lives, assumed a lynch-mob mentality. They didn’t just want to see Joe Paterno fired; they wanted him jailed, convicted and humiliated. They got some of what they wanted. Shortly after the Jerry Sandusky story broke, Joe Paterno was unceremoniously dumped before the season had finished. He had offered to retire at the end of the season, but Penn State said no.

The whole episode is sad on so many fronts. Who among us doesn’t have one or two deep regrets in their lives and would give anything to have a chance to right those wrongs if we could? The problem with this episode is it’s the last thing we have to remember Coach Paterno by.

Please don’t get me wrong. I am not trying to minimize the horrendous crimes allegedly committed by Jerry Sandusky. The children he violated have been scarred for life. Life in prison is not harsh enough for this man if he is convicted. But my problem in November was the same as it is today – Joe Paterno did not commit these crimes. Jerry Sandusky is the one who is alleged to have committed these heinous acts. Yet our knee-jerk society needed a more visible target to take down. They had to have someone to blame. Unless you were a hard-core football fan, you had probably never heard of Jerry Sandusky. Everyone had heard of Joe Paterno. Obviously he had to go, in their eyes.

After giving his all for sixty-one years, Joe Paterno was kicked to the curb by the administrators at Penn State against the wishes of most Penn State fans. More than six decades of leading and mentoring the young men of Penn State has been completely erased by many by what transpired over the past few weeks – but not in my eyes. I’ll still remember him for all of the good that he did. I’ll still have memories of how he took his dominant Penn State into Tennessee twice in the early seventies and went back to Happy Valley with a loss each time, yet paid us back in the nineties and 2000’s with bowl victories over the Vols – all games with class.

OK, so this is a nice rant – but what does this have to do with racing?

As I said earlier, the icons of my lifetime are quickly disappearing. Football coaches Bear Bryant, Joe Paterno and Tom Landry – they’re all gone. Nick Saban and Bill Belichick just don’t quite seem to be in their league. Perhaps we know too much about them. Who in basketball can approach the status of John Wooden? In racing, I followed the likes of AJ Foyt, Mario Andretti, Al & Bobby Unser, Johnny Rutherford and Gordon Johncock for thirty years. They were all icons that accounted for seventeen Indianapolis 500 victories between them. Who can replace them? Rick Mears is an icon, and he only drove half the time that those others did. Helio Castroneves may become the fourth four-time winner, but can he really be considered an icon?

Our society today doesn’t seem like they want to have any more icons. In conversations with my twenty-two year old son, he and his friends seem to have disdain for anyone that has achieved hero status. If someone has been labeled an icon by the media, the fist impulse seems to be to go to the internet and trash them. If no real dirt exists on a person – they’ll resort to just making it up. The internet doesn’t require sources or facts, just someone willing to make an outlandish statement in an effort to bring someone down from their supposed pedestal.

In the eyes of the Legions of the Miserable, it’s much easier to bring someone down than it is to admit someone actually deserves to be an icon. It’s hard for them to acknowledge that there are those out there that are much better people than they are.

There are those that are revered in history as iconic figures: Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. If they had to deal with today’s media, social media and society; I wonder what their status in history would be. Today’s societal hatred of success indicates that they view anyone that has enjoyed success as a person who obviously screwed and cheated someone to get there and they need to be punished.

I have given ESPN a hard time over the years for their coverage of the IZOD IndyCar Series, or lack thereof – and rightfully so. But give them credit for the job they did yesterday in covering the life of Joe Paterno. They acknowledged the events of the last few weeks, but never let them cloud the issue of what a tremendous impact this man had on the lives of young men. They pre-empted programming and devoted the entire morning and afternoon to what this man meant to so many.

The Legions of the Miserable have done their best to erase a magnificent career of sixty-one years. No one seems sacred or off-limits anymore. Is that a good thing? Some will say it is, that it is our right to know. Quite honestly, I don’t want to know every minute detail of my heroes. I prefer to preserve my image of heroes like AJ Foyt, Dan Gurney and Wilbur Shaw, without knowing every sordid detail of their personal life, but that’s me.

But please tell me, who is the next iconic figure in the IZOD IndyCar Series? Who will challenge those I’ve already mentioned? If they’re smart, they’ll not quite shoot for the stars – or else, someone will be doing their best to bring them crashing down to earth.

George Phillips

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26 Responses to “Who Can Replace Our Icons?”

  1. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    Unfortunately we just lost Dan Wheldon a driver that most certainly would have become an icon of open wheel racing, if he was not already…. And you are right George, it seems like to myself also that there is a growing disdain for the successful, by a segment of society in general, not only young people. It is the swelling group of those who feel entitled to all the things in life that the majority of us have worked hard for all of our lives. So, instead of striving at a personal level towards success and its rewards, it is always so much easier to find a reason to vilify everyone else rather than raise onesself up…. Because you see, that might actually require critical thought, planning and getting up before the sun and getting home after dark and putting in a great deal of effort in between….

  2. It’s the information age–for better and for worse. Not many of the heroes of the past could stand up to the scrutiny given to public figures today.

  3. George, I yield to your expertise on IndyCar issues but you are not only showing your age, but showing just how out of touch you are on this one. I am a recent Penn St grad and you have no idea how much we’ve wanted JoePa out of there for years. He was no icon. He was holding us back.

    And for him to turn his back while this monster continued his crimes is indefensible. His loyalty to the Old Boy network had been his downfall for years and it finally bit him. It is high time for a youth movement at Penn St. You gripe that no one can replace the Bear Bryants and AJ Foyts of the world. I say good riddance. Their way of doing things are outdated and have no place in today’s fast-paced global environment. I suggest you change with the times or become extinct yourself.

    • Are you seriously suggesting that we should say “good riddance” to A.J. Foyt and all that implies? For those of us dinosaurs, perhaps you can tell us all the remarkable things you have accomplished thus far in “today’s fast-paced global environment”, other than graduating from Penn St and knowing how to type. I would guess that you can probably even text and tweet. Of course a dinosaur like A.J. probably can’t do those things. Skill, guts, determination, courage……….so not fast-paced and global.

    • billytheskink Says:

      An icon being a person or thing that is widely regarded as a symbol or representative of something, I don’t see how you can say that Paterno was/is not one. He was one of the, if not the, most prominent representative of your alma mater for close to a half-century, and in death may continue to be so for years to come.

      Though I don’t totally agree, I won’t quibble with your criticism of the content of George’s column. I certainly do agree that in this situation Paterno and the PSU administration’s way of doing things was a detriment to themselves and, especially, to the institution that they served.
      But I think you misinterpreted the gist of the column (or perhaps I did, but I’m sticking to my guns for now). George’s lament doesn’t seem to be for the disappearance of the way Paterno, Bryant, Foyt, Andretti, and others did things, but rather for the seeming lack of contemporary figures who can/will fill the roles that these people have as widely-respected representatives of their sport. If that is truly what is happening, then I think it is an understandable lament.

  4. If Jerry Sandusky’s “alleged” crimes happened around a guy like AJ Foyt then his head would have banged into a tire iron or hammer repeatedly then reported.

  5. hadrianmarcus Says:

    I agree, in this age, not many of our heroes, or ourselves, would stand up to the microscope of modern scrutiny. By the same token, fair or not, people are defined by tiny moments of one’s life, whether it be on a battlefield or at the scene of an accident…or whatever. Would Paterno have responded the same…had that been his child being molested? Doubtful. The “Legions of the Miserable” didn’t tarnish Joe Paterno’s legacy, he did that all by himself. No one should be ‘sacred or off-limits’…and by what criteria would we select those ‘chosen few’. Joe Paterno, a good man and a good couch, who made one incredibly poor decision, but neither the monster that the “Legions of the Miserable” would have us believe, or the oppressed martyr…that you would want him to be.

  6. Savage Henry Says:

    Joe Paterno is an icon who will never be replaced. It is a shame that he now has this deep stain on his legacy as a result of the Sandusky mess, but he brought some of it on himself. Who knows what his motivation was, but it doesn’t really matter now. His 61 years at PSU represented everything that was right and good about college athletics and doing the right things for the right reasons. I always had a lot of pride knowing that my school had an icon, and the last honest man in college athletics. I consider the current NCAA to be nothing but a fever swamp of corruption and hypocrisy. I’ve lost interest in college sports – except for PSU football. Now I don’t even have that because I know that my school enabled things far more horrible than the NCAA enables.

    I have two degrees from PSU. My wife and I both went there – we said we were compatible because we came from the same religion. We named our dog JoePa. We had a Nittany Lion ice sculpture at our wedding. Most Penn Staters (at least of our era and before) are the same way. All of that was directly or indirectly related to Joe Paterno and the image that he projected onto our school. If that’s not the definition of an icon I don’t know what is. Even with a few months to try to absorb this scandal, we’re just shocked and saddened. It just seems to me that JoePa deserved better than going out like this.

    I think that the Paternos, Foyts, Unsers, etc. are not going to be replaced. Maybe I’m showing my age but the glory days of college football and racing are in the past. There just isn’t the sense of romance that there once was. College football is nothing more than a minor league system for the NFL and an enormous money machine now. Racing is now about spec cars, cost control, sponsor activation, and “scoring maximum points” toward the championship. When I think of Foyt, and others of that era I think of guys that considered winning the ultimate thing. They built and/or worked on their own cars, they put it all on the line. A lot of the drivers now seem like hired guns now.

    Now I’m rambling so I’ll shut up. Good article George. I think I agree with pretty much everything that you wrote.

  7. I have no interest in getting involved in discussing Joe Paterno and how he will ultimately be remembered.

    With regard to racing, I will simply say that Paul Newman and Dan Wheldon were class individuals who made a significant positive impact on those around them in and out of the sport. That they continue to do so even after they are gone speaks to their character.

    • I couldn’t agree more and in my opinion Paul Newman was a class act. I buy Newman’s Own whenever I can because 100% of the profits go to charities like the Hole in the Wall Gang. I think that Newman’s own also tastes the best!

  8. My childhood heroes were WWII fighter pilots; not only are these men mostly gone, ‘dogfighting’ and aerial combat are practically anachronisms now. My IndyCar heroes are the same as your icons, and, their cars were iconic and full of personality as well: Al Unser’s ‘Johnny Lightning’ Spl, Foyt’s Coyote and Rutherford’s Chaparral, to name a few. They cannot be replaced, and the era of icons may once again rise, but for now, it’s more about the personality of the instant, than person of the year. Our need for constant and immediate gratification is, unfortunately, moving faster than our quickest race drivers.

  9. Bobby Rahal, Chip Ganassi, Michael Andretti, Dario, Herta, TK, Tony Stewart, Sam Schmidt, etc. They are out there. There are owners and drivers ready to replace the old guard. It doesnt feel the same because they are different, but they are different. No need to worry. Penn St will play football this year and IndyCar will always have living legends.

    • billytheskink Says:

      Agreed, and add Jim Nabors to that list. IndyCar will always have icons. Current drivers will become icons, and future icons will be born in the series as the years go by.

      The difference between the future and the past will likely be the number of people who regard IndyCar’s personalities as icons. The next crop of IndyCar icons will likely be regarded as such by a much more select group, if you will, than AJ and Mario are.

  10. And now the IRL has lost the icon for female racers everywhere, Danica. Who will teach them to pout, stamp off, and strike other drivers. I guess we will have to depend on people named Snooki for that.

    • Is Snooki a new INDYCAR driver?

    • Do you feel better now after taking this cheap shot at Danica Patrick? During any IndyCar and Nascar season there is pushing and shoving, pouting, stomping off, even the famed double bird, by any number of drivers-male and female, famous and not so famous. I don’t recall Danica ever suggesting that she be considered an icon or role model. And to suggest that Danica could be replaced by the likes of Snooki? How very witty.

      • Indygrrl was just having fun and why not? And, by the way, Danica had a story put in a kids book by Kristine Brennen titled “Modern Role Model.” So yeah, she knows the turf.

    • Just when I was about to congratulate all who have posted here on good, reasonable, polite, intelligent discussion, we get this piece of irrelevant nonsense.

  11. Here is something irrelevant. Hey George, is that you on the picture at IndyCar.com talking to Ryan Briscoe at an autograph session? If it isn’t, boy does it look like you (from what I have seen in pictures at least).

    • Oilpressure Says:

      I gotta say that even I see a resemblance, but no it is not me. Unfortunately, I’ve been to no IndyCar functions since Indianapolis in May. That was obviously a recent picture since Briscoe was wearing a Chevy logo. Plus, I don’t own a sweater like that. Even my son thought it was me. Scary.

    • I did a double-take myself.

  12. Joe Paterno had no superiors at Penn State. That is a fact. He was responsible for the hiring of each of the people he allegedly reported the rape of a young boy. It was under his watch that all this monster preyed on young boys. I believe he had a strong idea that something wasn’t right. He did nothing. This post, or at least the first half from you George, is out of place and downright offensive.

  13. Brandon-Bond Says:

    As a 19 year old I see what you are saying George, for example LeBron James. He is hated because of where he decided to play basketball. Really? Paterno was the man as Sean said, he SHOULD have done something. That however shouldn’t erase a career that included 409 wins. That is more football games than most have watched. I will always remember what has happened this past year, it will never go away from Joe Paternos legacy nor should it but neither should all of the great moments in this man’s life. We all need that person we look up to in our life, to some people thay was Coach Paterno. Why should that be taken away because of mistakes. George I do disagree with you saying icons were going away, everyone has their own heroes, we just aren’t collective minds anymore. We all have access to information never thought possible. That’s my opinion.

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