Former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno dies at 85

Joe Paterno—a legend, lion and disgraced leader at Penn State – has died from complications of lung cancer.

Joseph Vincent “Joe” Paterno was 85.

His family, which includes five kids, 17 grandchildren and his wife Sue, released a statement Sunday morning to announce his death: "His loss leaves a void in our lives that will never be filled."

"He died as he lived," the statement said. "He fought hard until the end, stayed positive, thought only of others and constantly reminded everyone of how blessed his life had been. His ambitions were far reaching, but he never believed he had to leave this Happy Valley to achieve them. He was a man devoted to his family, his university, his players and his community."

For 46 seasons, Paterno was the beginning and end of Nittany Lions football. When he left Beaver Stadium for the final time on a snowy October day, Paterno had amassed 409 career victories – more than any coach in the history of the game.

He won his first national championship in 1983, and then another in 1987. Year after year, decade after decade, players left his program bound for the NFL.
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He was an innovator with influence, a dogged and determined coach with unmatched stamina.

“For the most part, I felt he was very calm, very much like a teacher in meetings and in addressing the team,” Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker and former Penn Stater Paul Posluszny told Sporting News. “But if you didn’t do something right on the field, he could flip a switch and become that fiery coach. He had a strong passion for the game.”

Despite his longevity and towering presence on campus and beyond -- he donated $4 million to the university -- Paterno could not outlast a child sex abuse scandal that threatened to destroy the good will he’d built in State College, Pa.

His longtime assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, was indicted for the alleged sexual molestation of young boys. The head coach had testified before a state grand jury about a 2002 allegation against Sandusky that was passed on to him by then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary.

While Paterno was never a target of the criminal investigation, his lack of further action — he waited a day to relay McQueary’s allegation that he'd seen Sandusky in the shower with a young boy to university officials — spurred the calls for his firing.

In a statement the morning of Nov. 9 that caught the school off-guard, Paterno announced he was retiring effective the end of the year. At the time, Paterno said he was devastated by the case, and that the Board of Trustees should "not spend a single minute discussing my status" and had more important matters to address.

"This is a tragedy," Paterno said then. "It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more."

Later that same night, citing his failure to meet an “obligation, a moral responsibility, for all adults to watch out for children,” said trustee Mark Dambly, Paterno was fired.

Students stood that night on his front lawn, cheering: “We are Penn State.”
Joe Paterno was the head coach at Penn State from 1966 to 2011. (SN Photo)
What they did not know, what no one knew, was that Paterno would soon be facing a bigger fight: the one for his life against lung cancer. Less than two weeks after he was dismissed, his family made public his illness.

In the two months that followed, Paterno – affectionately known by many as JoePa – appeared frail. His body was weakened by chemotherapy; his voice, the hardscrabbled Brooklyn, N.Y. accent that stayed with him always, was reduced to a whisper.

The Washington Post recently interviewed Paterno. He sat in a wheelchair at the kitchen table with his family, and he wore a wig. He used the moment to defend himself against allegations that he didn’t do enough to keep Sandusky, an alleged sexual predator, away from young boys. He also said he doesn’t have to rebuild his image.

“I’m not 31 years old trying to prove something to anybody,” he said. “I know where I am.”

He’d come a long way to become the revered figure that he was. Born on Dec. 21, 1926, Paterno grew up in Brooklyn. After serving in the Army, he played quarterback and cornerback at Brown University. He graduated in 1950 and immediately jumped into coaching.

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He became an assistant at Penn State under his college coach, Rip Engle. When Engle retired after the 1965 season, Paterno took over.

Time and again he turned down opportunities to move on to the NFL and to other colleges as well. Penn State, too, asked for him to step down as he began to age. He refused. In all, at least 900 coaching changes occurred while Paterno stayed entrenched at Penn State. In 2008, an ESPN Outside the Lines report highlighted 163 criminal charges against 46 of Paterno’s players dating to 2002. Paterno called it a “witch hunt.”

The cone of silence around the program tightened. Paterno revealed less and less to the media over the years, and began to limit access. The biggest secret of all was the 2002 accusation against Sandusky.

The scandal that eventually erupted has tarnished an otherwise spotless tenure. On October 27, 2001, Penn State defeated Ohio State, 29-27. With the victory, Paterno passed legendary Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant for most wins, with 324. Five years later he was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame.

Former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden and former Miami and Florida Atlantic coach Howard Schnellenberger — both Paterno contemporaries — were on opposite sidelines at the Battle of Florida all-star game Saturday night when they learned of Paterno’s failing health.

“Just remember the good things. I don’t remember the bad things,” Bowden, 82, told The Miami Herald. “He didn’t have many bad things. He and I spent a lot of time together. We played him 10 times at West Virginia and played him twice when I was at Florida State in bowls. I never beat him in Pennsylvania. He had too many good players.”

Schnellenberger said: “All of this happened to him so fast.” He added: “The University of Miami’s successes are tied real closely to him, the games we played together. We played three times. Every one of them was a big struggle knowing we were going up against the best coach in America. The last two months have been a terrible thing (for him).”

The milestones continued to mount. There was No. 400, a 35-21 win over Northwestern in November of 2010. And then came No. 409, the victory that allowed him to eclipse the late Grambling State coach, Eddie Robinson.

Paterno never made it to the next game.

Nittany Lions linebacker Nick Sukay, playing at the East-West Shrine Game, told the Tampa Bay Tribune: "He was a great leader for all of us."

On the field, his team still had games remaining against Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin in Big Ten play, and Houston in the Ticket City Bowl.

The Nittany Lions played on. Paterno wasn’t there, but his presence loomed. As it will always.|maing9|dl1|sec1_lnk2%26pLid%3D129353