SUDDENLY THOSE people who called for Joe Paterno's head had to reconcile that figurative demand with his literal demise.
Penn State's castaway football coach has no more opportunities to respond to the rants. He cannot counter calls for his statue to be removed from campus, his moniker taken from buildings and trophies, his name erased from an ice cream flavor served at the University Park Creamery.
He has no time to repair a legacy constructed in decades and razed in days.
And an old lesson is relearned: Nothing redefines our treatment of a person like the unexpected death of said person.
It's easy to accuse and attack when you believe the alleged offender will be around long enough to rebut, recant, regret or reconcile. We all do it at one point or another, turning short-tempered rage on a handy scapegoat, focusing long-simmering frustration on the target du jour.
In this case, much of the assault on Paterno was visceral, not factual. Law enforcement officials conceded from the start that he did everything legally required. It was the moral responsibility that irked.
But insisting our moral view in hindsight should have been his moral view at the moment of crisis is conceit incarnate. It's effortless to say "I would have!" when we never had to. Who can contradict?
It was – still is – easy to take the high moral ground because of the heinous accusations in this case ... too easy. The most common comment following charges of child molestation against former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky went like this: "If it was my son or daughter …" followed by "they should fire everyone who had anything to do with it!"
Few, if any, used the same gut check in the other direction: "If Paterno were my dad or brother …" Maybe then they'd want a little more due process, to make sure justice was being served amid the justified anger.
And it would be a very safe bet that, once the Sandusky allegation became public, no one who called for Paterno's instant departure stopped to think: "And what if JoePa dies in two months?"
Paterno's longevity on the PSU sidelines, coupled with his quintessential basse couture – frumpy, lumpy and fiercely forgettable, thus unstoppably memorable – made him not only iconic, but also seemingly immortal. At any moment, he looked now as he looked 10 or 20 years ago.
Now we know he had little life left to figure it all out, to find his place in the tragedy, to atone as he saw fit or defend as he saw necessary.
This isn't an apology for Paterno, or a dismissal of the alleged victims.
If Sandusky did as accused, helping those he harmed comes first, punishing him comes second and sorting out Paterno's role comes somewhere after. Paterno probably should have been fired or resigned, though the how and when are deeply suspect. Days before his death, PSU officials talked of finding a way to honor him … eventually.
Oops! Too late.
No apology here, just a few reminders.
Shame on us if we hold Sandusky's alleged victims somehow higher than other children suffering daily abuse, simply because "He was ... Penn State."
Shame on us when we are so eager to bury Paterno that some media almost literally did, reporting his death prematurely.
(An editor of the web-based "Onward State" resigned that post after tweeting JoePa's death Saturday. The real tragedy: In an explanation posted on the site, we were told Onward had pre-written the tweet and the editor just pushed "send" when he believed the time had come. Then "the unthinkable happened" as they learned Paterno was still alive. Really? Is it "unthinkable" that journalists of any stripe are fallible? Shouldn't it be "unthinkable" that we are so impatient to report tragedy we can't wait until it occurs? When and why did it become necessary to pre-write a 140-character sentence about an anticipated death?)
And shame on any of us who forget that those we attack are mortal and might not live to see the facts unfurl.
Time will judge Joe Paterno, and he clearly earned that time.
In the wake of his death, those who convicted him ... all of us, in fact ... need to ask:
What was the rush?