The former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno – the all-time Division I leader in wins who resigned amid the university’s child molestation scandal just a few months ago – has passed away due to complications from lung cancer. He was 85.
His family confirmed the death in a statement. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in November 2011 a few days after his dismissal, his family said at the time. Doctors were optimistic about a full recovery following treatment, the family said. He re-entered the hospital on Jan. 13 for his cancer, AP reported.
Paterno coached the Nittany Lions to 409 wins, two national championships and a record 24 bowl victories in 46 seasons as head coach at one of college football’s most prestigious programs. He was fired mid-season on Nov. 9, 2011, after being criticized for failing to contact police when told of case involving former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, who was charged with assaulting boys in the school’s athletic complex.
Fallout from the scandal brought an abrupt end to Paterno’s 61-year coaching run at the central Pennsylvania campus known as Happy Valley. He had arrived in State College in 1950 and spent 16 years as an assistant under Rip Engle before taking over as coach the day after Engle retired.
As coach of the same major college football team from 1966 until his dismissal, Paterno set a record for longevity, surpassing Amos Alonzo Stagg, who spent 41 straight years at the University of Chicago.
Paterno’s tenure on the staff had spanned 12 U.S. presidents and more than 690 games, which represent more than half of all played by Penn State since its football program started in 1887.
Paterno set a record for major-college wins in 2001, breaking Paul “Bear” Bryant’s record of 323, and held the mark until Bobby Bowden passed him in 2003. The two coaches were neck-and-neck until Bowden retired after the 2009 season with 388 wins over 34 years.
Paterno broke Eddie Robinson’s Division I record of 408 victories at Grambling State University when the Nittany Lions beat Illinois on Oct. 29, 2011.
It was the final career win for Paterno, who was fired by Penn State’s board of trustees 11 days later. Paterno’s victory trailed only that of John Gagliardi of Saint John’s University in Minnesota in college football history.
Locker Room Assault
As the scandal unfolded, Paterno said he was shocked and deeply saddened by the charges against Sandusky, who was Paterno’s defensive coordinator until his retirement at the end of the 1999 season.
In 2002, a graduate assistant saw Sandusky sexually assaulting a 10-year-old boy in the Penn State locker room showers and reported it to Paterno, according to a grand jury indictment. Paterno said he wasn’t aware of specific details of the attack and referred the matter to university officials.
As the furor grew over school officials’ lack of action against Sandusky, Paterno said he wished he “had done more” and announced he’d retire at the end of the season.
Penn State’s board of trustees fired Paterno and President Graham Spanier the next day, saying it was necessary to make a change in leadership. After the decision, students supporting Paterno clashed with police in downtown State College, where protesters overturned a television van, tore down light poles and threw bottles and other objects.
Paterno’s legacy had extended far beyond football.
Known as ‘JoePa’
His thick glasses, rolled-up pant legs and white athletic socks became as much a symbol of Penn State football as the team’s white helmets and plain jerseys, which don’t have player names on the back.
“JoePa,” as he was affectionately known, emphasized academics as much as winning football games. In his second year as head coach, he allowed his best lineman, Mike Reid, to take the season off so he could star in a school play.
Paterno coached dozens of All-Americans, including 1973 Heisman Trophy winner John Cappelletti and former NFL star LaVar Arrington, mentored Pro Football Hall-of-Famers Franco Harris and Jack Ham, and was voted coach of the year by his colleagues a record four times.
Paterno also chose to stay put in State College rather than coach in the National Football League.
“Why leave?’‘ Paterno explained in a 1995 interview with the Tampa Tribune. “It’s got everything I want: small town, a college town. I can walk home after games. I’ve been accepted as a faculty member, not treated as a dumb jock. I can do things that suit me intellectually; I’m a little bit of an egghead.”
Born in Brooklyn
Paterno and his wife Suzanne Pohland, a Penn State graduate, donated more than $4 million to the university over the years to endow faculty positions and scholarships and to build an interfaith spiritual center and a sports museum.
Joseph Vincent Paterno was born in Brooklyn, New York, on Dec. 21, 1926, and grew up in a neighborhood where, he recalled, “playing daily at sports was our work: not only touch football but also punchball and stickball,” according to a Penn State biography.
As a high-school senior, he was quarterback of a Brooklyn Prep team that lost only one game — to St. Cecilia High School of Englewood, New Jersey, a team coached by Vince Lombardi before he began his Hall of Fame NFL career.
After serving in the U.S. Army, Paterno went to Brown University, where he played football under Engle. The skinny quarterback led the Bears to an 8-1 record in his senior season, prompting writer Stanley Woodward to describe him as a player “who can’t run, can’t pass — just thinks and wins.”
Law School Bound
Paterno planned to attend law school, but changed his mind when Engle left for Penn State and offered Paterno a job as an assistant coach. The city kid quickly grew restless in the rural college town.
“After a few weeks, I told Rip, ‘I’m getting out of here before I go nuts,’” Paterno once said. “You better start looking around for another coach.”
Paterno decided to stay and became a Penn State institution.
The Nittany Lions posted perfect records in 1968, 1969 and 1973, but didn’t win their first national championship until the 1982 season, which they capped with a Sugar Bowl victory over University of Georgia.
Penn State won its second national title in 1986 with a 12- 0 record and went undefeated for the fifth time under Paterno in 1994, including the first Rose Bowl win in school history.
Paterno turned down multiple opportunities to leave Penn State, including a 1973 offer to coach the NFL’s Boston Patriots. Although his annual salary was only $35,000 at the time, Paterno passed up a deal that would have paid him $1.4 million a year, plus a 5 percent ownership stake in the Patriots. In his next-to-last season at Penn State, his salary was $1.02 million.
Paterno and his wife had five children — sons David, George Scott and Jay, who was hired as quarterbacks coach, and daughters Diana Giegerich and Mary Kathryn Hort — and 17 grandchildren.