Longtime Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, the patriarch of the storied but wounded program, died early Sunday morning, his family said in a statement. His death came two months after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Paterno was 85.
“He died as he lived. He fought hard until the end, stayed positive, thought only of others and constantly reminded everyone of how blessed his life had been,” the statement said. “His ambitions were far-reaching, but he never believed he had to leave this Happy Valley to achieve them.”
A turn for the worse in Paterno’s condition on Saturday sent his scandal-scarred program, and the larger university community that seemed to revolve around that program, to yet another emotional nadir. Paterno, at one time perhaps the most beloved coach in America, had been fired by the school’s Board of Trustees on Nov. 9 in the wake of a child sex-abuse scandal involving longtime Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. Nine days later, it was revealed Paterno had lung cancer.
Paterno, who won two national championships and a Division I-record 409 games in his 46 seasons as Penn State’s head coach, was hospitalized most recently on Jan. 13, just hours after granting an interview to a Washington Post reporter in his State College home, his first and only interview since the Sandusky scandal broke.
Sitting up in his bed with a blanket over his legs, and speaking in a hoarse whisper, Paterno seemed fully aware of his impending mortality, saying: “I’m worried about my kids, my family. They’re concerned about me, so I’m concerned about them.” Family members also understood that his health was slipping rapidly.
In that same interview, conducted over two days at the Paterno home, he acknowledged not knowing how to react when graduate assistant Michael McQueary approached him in 2002 with an account of Sandusky having inappropriate sexual contact with a boy in the Penn State locker room.
“I didn’t know exactly how to handle it,” Paterno said. “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.”
Three other top university officials lost their jobs in the wake of the scandal, and Sandusky faces 52 counts of child molestation.
As news of Paterno’s condition spread Saturday night, hundreds of students gathered at his bronze statue outside Beaver Stadium for an impromptu vigil, according to the Centre Daily Times, while police barricaded McKee Street, where Paterno and wife Sue live.
There were several false media reports Saturday night that Paterno had died but his son, Jay, went on Twitter at 9:21 p.m. to say his father was still alive.
The first false report of Paterno’s death apparently was made by Onward State, a Penn State student-run Web site, at 8:45 p.m. Two minutes later, CBS Sports’s Web site posted a blog item saying Paterno had died.
Another 10 minutes went by before the first official refuting of the false reports, and at 9:22 p.m., Scott Paterno, another of Paterno’s sons, tweeted: “Dad is alive but in serious condition. We continue to ask for your prayers and privacy during this time.”
Devon Edwards, the Onward State managing editor, announced his resignation late Saturday night.
“I take full responsibility for the events that transpired tonight, and for the black mark upon the organization that I have caused,” he wrote on Facebook.
Staff writer Sally Jenkins contributed to this report.