Joe Paterno: Seize This Opportunity

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Dear Coach Paterno,

As a Pennsylvanian, I am writing to thank you for all you have done for college football.

And, I am also writing to ask you to seize the great leadership opportunity now before you.

Allow me to explain.

Having served on the Penn State coaching staff for 59 years (16 years as an assistant and 43 years as head coach), you have amassed the most successful record in major college football history — 383 wins, 127 losses and 3 ties as head coach.

An inductee into the College Football Hall of Fame, you have won two national championships, posted five undefeated seasons and appeared in and won more bowl games than any other coach. Assisted by your strong staff, you just completed a tremendous season with 11 wins and 1 loss, followed by an appearance at the Rose Bowl. You are loved and respected, especially in your home state of Pennsylvania. Many consider you "the father of Pennsylvania football."

In addition to athletic excellence, you have set the standard for prioritizing the academic and character development of your players. Over your long career, your players have achieved the third-highest graduation rate among Division I-A public universities and the eighth-highest graduation rate among all 119 Division I-A schools. You are the coach who has produced great teams, great players and great young men.

It is because of these extraordinary leadership achievements that you were invited to nominate George H.W. Bush to be president at the Republican National Convention in 1988. Presidents Reagan and Bush clearly had tremendous respect for you as a coach, a man and a leader. No other football coach has achieved this level of national recognition or renown before or since.

So what is the great leadership opportunity I am asking you to seize? You should seize this moment to go out on top and avoid the tragic mistake of hanging on too long.

The "Father of our Country," George Washington, will always be remembered as a great man and a great leader not just because of what he did but because of what he did not do. As commanding general, Washington led America successfully through the eight grueling years of the Revolutionary War.

Then, unlike almost every victorious general in history before him, he resigned his military commission and retired to life as a private citizen. Six years later, he was elected our first president and served with great distinction, helping our new economy to grow and keeping our country out of dangerous foreign entanglements.

Washington had the popularity and power of position to be re-elected and remain in office for life. He could even have positioned a relative to succeed him. The simple truth is that any lesser man in his position would have done these things. At the time, there were no constitutional restrictions preventing this. But George Washington was not a great leader only because of what he did in office; he was a great leader because he had the humility and foresight to step aside at the appropriate time.

Washington allowed unrelated younger men of achievement to take his place and moved off the public stage after eight years as president. He was great not only because of what he did with power but also because he willingly gave up power. By contrast, the list of leaders who have destroyed their reputations and legacies by clinging to power is long.

Coach Paterno, you have been a great football coach and leader for your 59-year career at Penn State. You are so loved and respected that you have recently been given a new three-year contract. This has given you a great opportunity because you can now set a strong leadership example for your players, your coaching staff and the people of Pennsylvania by resigning your public position of your own free will.

On New Year’s Eve, millions of people watched a determined but infirm Dick Clark announce the ball drop at New York’s Times Square. Unfortunately, it was a tragic moment because we were not watching the Clark we all remember. He has been an amazing American entertainer for many decades. But when millions of people now think of Dick Clark, they will not be able to remember his great years without remembering his clear decline and the year when he should have stepped aside.

Coach Paterno, do not lessen your achievements or your reputation as a leader by hanging on for too long. Follow in George Washington’s footsteps and avoid Dick Clark’s tragic mistake.

Glen Meakem was the founder and CEO of FreeMarkets Inc. in Pittsburgh. He now is a co-founder and managing director of Meakem Becker Venture Capital.