The family of legendary Joe Paterno, college football’s all-time winningest coach announced he died Sunday morning (01.22.12), after battling lung cancer, that was just diagnosed a few months ago. He was 85. The family had previously said that the longtime Penn State head coach was diagnosed with what had been called a treatable form of lung cancer.
His amazing career as head coach, Penn State’s Nittany Lions spanned over 46-years during which he won two national championships and went undefeated for five different seasons. Paterno, known as “JoePa” to his players and football fans, won the National Coach of the Year Award five times and became the winningest coach in 2011 with 409 wins. A Brown University graduate who was born in Brooklyn, he served as an assistant coach at Penn State for 15 years before becoming head coach in 1966.
Paterno’s legendary career was abruptly ended last November when he was fired shortly after former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was charged with more than 50 counts involving sex acts with young boys dating back to 1994. He came under fire for not doing enough to alert authorities once he learned of early allegations about Sandusky.
Had it not been for the Sandusky case, JoePa’s retirement and death would have been one of the college sports world’s greatest celebrations… celebrations of a life, but the shadow of this case, still to be litigated now hangs over and diminishes this amazing career. Most believe it was a lack of judgment on Paterno’s part, but that he had no more to do with those horrible events. It is perhaps one of the saddest examples of being blinded by being too close to the situation or too believing of a friend or the system you are a part of.
“The acclaim for Joe Paterno has stemmed largely from the contrast between the high academic and moral standards he has tried to exemplify and the shameless conduct that often embarrasses and dishonors the college sport he cherishes,” author Michael O’Brien wrote in a 1999 biography of Paterno, “No Ordinary Joe.” But in the end he found himself embroiled in one of the greatest embarrassments and tragedies in that world.
Paterno’s motto on and off the field was always ‘winning through strength’, yet the end of career is marred by a moment of personal weakness.
There has been a great outpouring by students, alumni and sports fans with the announcement of JoePa’s death. The university is still “considering appropriate ways” to honor Paterno’s legacy, they said today in their statement, and its athletics department is “consulting with members of the Penn State community on the nature and timing of the gathering”: a politically correct statement if there ever was one.
Paterno was born in 1926 in Brooklyn to second-generation Italian immigrants, according to O’Brien’s book. He attended Brown University, where he played quarterback and cornerback. And when Paterno decided to forgo a career in law to make coaching his career, his father Angelo said” Make an impact”, and that he did over the past 61-years.
Paterno coached at Penn State as an assistant from 1950 to 1965 and became head coach in 1966, where he touched the lives of many, on and off the field. And soon his presence on the side line always decked out in his trademark thick glasses, white socks and sneakers, made him a memorable fixture on the football field and in the college football world.
Named National Coach of the Year five times, Paterno was added to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2006, but his induction was delayed until 2007 because of injuries he suffered in a sideline collision.
Paterno “died as he lived,” the family statement said Sunday. “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.”
Paterno also had a significant impact on the university’s academic programs. JoePa and his wife, Suzanne, donated more than $4 million to the university over the years for faculty endowments, scholarships and building projects, according to the university.
The statue on the Penn State campus has been turned into a memorial.
“He has been many things in his life -a soldier, scholar, mentor, coach, friend and father,” the family statement said. To his wife, “he was and is her soul mate, and the last several weeks have shown the strength of their love. To his children and grandchildren he is a shining example of how to live a good, decent and honest life, a standard to which we aspire.”
Paterno has been honored with glowing words of praise from players and presidents alike. President Ronald Reagan said Paterno never forgot that “he is a teacher who’s preparing his students not just for the season, but for life” and early on Sunday George H.W. Bush eulogized JoePa, saying he was proud to have been his friend. His players loved him!
Paterno received the National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame Distinguished American Award in 1991 and in doing so, he became the first active coach to do so.
“What are coaches?” Paterno said at the dinner celebrating his award. “Number one, we’re teachers and we’re educators. We have the same obligation as all teachers at our institutions, except we probably have more influence over our young people than anyone other than their families,” he said.
It was his perceived failure to meet those obligations that led to his downfall as the only coach many Penn State football fans had ever known.
Curley and Schultz, who have both pleaded ‘not guilty’ to charges relating to the Sandusky sexual scandal, including perjury and failing to report the alleged 2002 incident, issued statements Sunday expressing their sorrow at Paterno’s death.
“Joe has been an integral part of my life for more than 35 years,” Curley said. “Joe coached me, mentored me, taught me what it meant to compete with integrity and honor, and above all demonstrated with each day that he lived, the power of humility.”
At the time of his firing, Paterno said in a statement released by his son, Scott Paterno, that he was “distraught” over the sex abuse scandal. Then in an interview with the Washington Post published January 14, Paterno said that he felt inadequate to deal with the allegations.
“I didn’t know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was,” the Post quoted him as saying. “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.”
Later he added he wished he would have done more.
Sandusky, who faces more than 50 counts involving sexual acts with 10 boys since 1994, has pleaded not guilty. He released the following statement upon hearing the announcement of Paterno’s death.
“Nobody did more for the academic reputation of Penn State than Joe Paterno,” Sandusky said in a statement Sunday. “He maintained a high standard in a very difficult profession. Joe preached toughness, hard work and clean competition. Most importantly, he had the courage to practice what he preached. Nobody will be able to take away the memories we all shared of a great man, his family, and all the wonderful people who were a part of his life.”
Bill O’Brien, who was named Penn State’s head football coach following Paterno’s firing, said:
“The Penn State Football program is one of college football’s iconic programs because it was led by an icon in the coaching profession in Joe Paterno. There are no words to express my respect for him as a man and as a coach. To be following in his footsteps at Penn State is an honor. Our families, our football program, our university and all of college football have suffered a great loss, and we will be eternally grateful for Coach Paterno’s immeasurable contributions.”
The Paterno family spokesperson said Sunday that JoePa died “with a peaceful mind, comforted by his ‘living legacy’ of five kids, 17 grandchildren, and hundreds of young men whose lives he changed in more ways than can begin to be counted.”
They have requested that in lieu of flowers or gifts, that donations be made to the Special Olympics of Pennsylvania or the Penn State-THON, a charity dance marathon held by Penn State fraternities and sororities.
God Bless you JoePa!! You will be missed!!