Joe Paterno, former Penn State football coach, dies at 85

Joe Paterno, the former Penn State football coach who was among the most admired figures in the annals of collegiate sports but whose reputation was shattered in the wake of a child abuse scandal involving one of his longtime assistants, died Jan. 22. He was 85.

The cause was lung cancer, according to a statement released by Mount Nittany Medical Center, the hospital in State College, Pa., where Mr. Paterno died.

Video

Listen to previously unpublished excerpts from Joe Paterno's final interview with The Washington Post's Sally Jenkins. (Jan. 22)

Listen to previously unpublished excerpts from Joe Paterno's final interview with The Washington Post's Sally Jenkins. (Jan. 22)

Graphic

A look at the victims and events in the case against Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, as reported by the grand jury that investigated.
Click Here to View Full Graphic Story

A look at the victims and events in the case against Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, as reported by the grand jury that investigated.

More on this Story

View all Items in this Story

“He died as he lived,” Mr. Paterno’s family said in a statement. “He fought hard until the end, stayed positive, thought only of others and constantly reminded everyone of how blessed his life had been.”

News of Mr. Paterno’s death Sunday morning touched off an outpouring of grief and admiration on the Penn State campus in State College. Hundreds flocked to a statue of Mr. Paterno at the school’s Beaver Stadium. The base of the statue was decorated with scores of candles, flowers, T-shirts, and blue and white pom-poms. A moment of silence was observed at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Ind., before Penn State’s basketball team played Indiana University.

The specter of Mr. Paterno’s failing health had loomed over the campus throughout the weekend. Inaccurate reports of his death began surfacing Saturday night, fueled by an incorrect report posted on a school student Web site, Onward State. That report went viral, spread by social media and picked up by a number of national news organizations, which later issued corrections.

Mr. Paterno’s ascent, followed by his sudden firing at age 84, formed one of the most tragic narratives in modern athletic history and constitutes something of a conflicted legacy. He was the most successful head coach in the history of major college football, but the circumstances of his dismissal led to a stain both on the football program and the man who ran it for so long.

Affectionately known as “JoePa,” Mr. Paterno began his 46-season tenure as Penn State’s head coach in 1966 after having served as assistant coach for 16 years. His teams won a record 409 games over that span with five undefeated and untied seasons and two national championships. He was the all-time winningest coach in major college football history. Moreover, his players and his team had one of the highest graduation rates in the country among athletes.

Mr. Paterno was shaken to the core last fall when a grand jury report alleged that his former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, had sexually assaulted underage boys.

Sandusky, Mr. Paterno’s longtime defensive coordinator and trusted lieutenant until he retired in 1999, was charged with assaulting eight boys over the course of 15 years, some of them while he was an assistant coach. Following the release of that report, other alleged victims also began to come forward. Sandusky had made contact with the boys through The Second Mile, a charity he founded to help troubled youngsters.

The Sandusky case was not the first off-the-field issue Mr. Paterno’s program had faced in recent years. According to an ESPN report in 2008, between 2002 and 2008, 46 Penn State players had been charged with a total of 163 crimes. In March 2011, Sports Illustrated published arrest numbers for all the schools it listed in its preseason Top 25 teams in the country. Penn State tied for fourth, with 16 players on the 2010 roster who had been charged with a crime.

During the Sandusky investigation, Mr. Paterno testified to the grand jury that Mike McQueary, a graduate assistant coach, said he had witnessed an assault by Sandusky on a youngster in the Penn State locker room.

Mr. Paterno said he passed the information on to his supervisors but did not notify law enforcement authorities about the incident. Mr. Paterno was never charged with a crime but was fired Nov. 9, 2011, by the school’s board of trustees, which included five former Penn State football players. Athletic director Tim Curley and school president Graham Spanier were also dismissed.

Mr. Paterno, McQueary and other Penn State officials were all severely criticized for not reporting the incident to the police.

“I didn’t know exactly how to handle it, and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was,” Paterno told The Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins earlier this month when discussing the Sandusky scandal. “So I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did. It didn’t work out that way.”

Still, the day his dismissal was announced, Penn State students marched in the streets in support of their beloved coach, and police were called in when the demonstration turned into what Sports Illustrated described as “a low-grade riot.” A week after the firing, Mr. Paterno’s family announced that he was being treated for lung cancer.

Until news of Sandusky’s transgressions rocked the university, Mr. Paterno had a virtually impeccable reputation. He was a sought-after speaker who also had been recruited, to no avail, to run for political office. President Gerald R. Ford made overtures to Mr. Paterno in the 1970s, trying to persuade him to run for Congress.

“He transcends football,” Ford, a one-time University of Michigan gridiron standout, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2004. “Joe could have done anything he wanted to do in life because he’s so dedicated. . . . He’s not only a great motivator of young people, but he always has the best interest of his community at heart.”

Mr. Paterno called Penn State football his “grand experiment,” an attempt to marry athletics and academics to achieve another of his mantras: “success with honor.” He was particularly proud that his players went to class and earned their diplomas and that the football program was never implicated in seamy recruiting or academic scandals that plagued so many of the nation’s major athletic powers.

“My thing was play as hard as you can, don’t be stupid, pay attention to details, and have enough guts in the clutch that you’re not afraid to make a play,” he told Jenkins. “Some things I thought were important for a young man to know.”

He was an old-school coach who would not allow his players to have their names sewn on the backs of their uniform jerseys and enforced a strict coat-and-tie dress code when his teams went on the road. He roamed the sideline usually wearing rolled-up khaki pants, a white shirt and tie, white socks and athletic shoes.

His specialty was offense, and he believed in having a strong running game. Several running backs he coached earned all-American honors and moved on to successful careers in the National Football League.

He preached the basics on the field and was a stickler for the game’s fundamentals. His offensive schemes were nothing fancy. His defenses were characteristically uncomplicated. His strategy, although simple, was efficient. In his 46 years coaching, he had only five losing seasons.

Under Mr. Paterno, Penn State produced so many top-notch linebackers, including Hall of Famer Jack Ham and former Washington Redskins LaVar Arrington and Andre Collins, that the school became known as “Linebacker U.”

“If you’re not a man when you get there, you’ll be a man before you leave,” Arrington, the second pick in the 2000 NFL draft, was quoted as saying in the 2011 Penn State football media guide. “Joe has his system so that you’re prepared for life. Joe trains you more mentally than physically so that nothing will rattle you.”

In more than six decades at Penn State, Mr. Paterno had an enduring impact on the university. He lived in a modest home about a mile from his office and often walked to work, stopping to chat with students, faculty or anyone else he encountered along the way. He was a formidable fundraiser for the university and donated more than $4 million of his own money for a wide variety of projects, including the school library that bears his name.

He helped endow a student health center and was a principal reason the school’s endowment, virtually nonexistent when he arrived on campus, grew to an estimated $2 billion. The campus creamery named an ice cream after him: Peachy Paterno.

Mr. Paterno had other difficult times besides the Sandusky scandal. Following a 4-7 season in 2004, Curley, the athletic director, and Spanier, the school president, tried to persuade Mr. Paterno to consider retirement.

Mr. Paterno, then 77, scoffed at the suggestion and remained the head coach for an additional seven years, including an 11-1 season and No. 3 national ranking in 2005 and back-to-back 11-2 seasons in 2008 and 2009.

“I stayed on the track I wanted to stay on,” he told Jenkins. “I don’t think I deviated from what I’m all about and what I thought was important. Whether you want to call that a legacy, or whatever you want to call it.”

Joseph Vincent Paterno was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Dec. 21, 1926. His father was an appellate court clerk who graduated from law school in his 40s. Mr. Paterno always credited his father with instilling in him the importance of education.

Mr. Paterno graduated from prestigious Brooklyn Prep, a high school with a strong academic and athletic tradition. He played baseball, basketball and football, graduated second in his class and was student council president.

After serving in the Army, he went to Brown University in Providence, R.I. Playing alongside his older brother George, Mr. Paterno started at quarterback for Brown and led the team to a 7-2 record in 1948 and 8-1 in 1949.

Mr. Paterno, an English major at Brown, was planning to attend Boston University’s law school after graduation. But in his senior year, he helped coach Brown’s quarterbacks, and the team’s head coach, Charles “Rip” Engle, persuaded Mr. Paterno to follow him to Penn State in 1950.

Mr. Paterno still had a notion to go to law school, but he decided to accompany Engle to State College and was named offensive backfield coach. He never left and coached a number of outstanding players, including future NFL Hall of Fame running back Lenny Moore.

Engle stayed at Penn State for 16 years and never had a losing season. Mr. Paterno was aware that his mentor was planning to retire after the 1965 season and reportedly turned down six offers to coach at other schools. In his first season as head coach, the Nittany Lions finished 5-5, but in the second year they improved to 8-2 and earned a bid to the Gator Bowl, the first of his 37 bowl appearances, with 24 bowl victories.

In that game against Florida State, Mr. Paterno decided to gamble on a crucial fourth-and-one play at his own 15-yard line despite leading, 17-0. Florida State held, and then scored 17 unanswered points to salvage a 17-17 tie. Mr. Paterno was heavily criticized for his failed gamble.

“I had told the players time after time you have to take chances to win,” Mr. Paterno said after the game. In an article in Sports Illustrated the following year, he said: “We’re trying to win football games . . . but I don’t want it to ruin our lives if we lose. I tell the kids who come here to play, enjoy yourselves. There’s so much besides football. There’s art, history, literature, politics.”

Still, winning clearly meant something to Mr. Paterno. He was bitterly disappointed when his undefeated and untied teams in 1968, 1969 and 1973 were not ranked No. 1 in the final wire-service polls.

In 1969, he was particularly upset with President Richard M. Nixon, who walked into the University of Texas locker room after a Longhorn victory over Arkansas and told the players they deserved to be the national champions.

Mr. Paterno complained publicly at the time that Nixon “took something away from my kids.” In his 1973 commencement address at Penn State, Mr. Paterno asked, “How could President Nixon know so little about Watergate in 1973 and so much about football in 1969?”

In 1972, Mr. Paterno had been offered a $1.3 million contract over five years to become the head coach of the New England Patriots, but he turned it down to stay at Penn State. Three years earlier he was offered the top coaching job with the Pittsburgh Steelers and also decided to stay in State College. The Steelers instead hired Chuck Noll, who won four Super Bowls in six seasons.

“I can tell you that Penn State would have been the loser in that situation,” Steelers owner Dan Rooney told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2004. “I wrote him a letter once and told him he was ideal for college football. That was coming from a guy who tried to take him away from that. He is the perfect coach for college football.”

Why did he spurn the NFL?

“In the end,” Mr. Paterno told Newsday, “I didn’t feel like I should leave a job where I had been happy, where I had made so many friends.”

In 1962, he married Suzanne Pohland, a Penn State graduate. Besides his wife, survivors include five children, Jay Paterno, David Paterno, Scott Paterno, Mary Kathryn Hort and Diana Giegerich, all graduates of Penn State; and 17 grandchildren.

“I knew what college football means to me and what pro football could never mean,” Mr. Paterno once told Reader’s Digest. “I love winning games as much as any coach does, but I know there’s something that counts more than victory or defeat. I get to watch my players grow — in their personal discipline, in their educational development, and as human beings. That is a deep, lasting reward that I could never get in pro ball.”

 
Read what others are saying