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Published: Monday, 1/23/2012

1926-2012

Legendary Penn State coach dies

BY RON MUSSELMAN
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Had Joe Paterno's life remained unclouded for just a few more months, the remembrances today would speak solely of his legacy as the winningest coach in college football history, of his role as a revered leader and molder of men, and of his generosity to the university he loved.

Mr. Paterno's death Sunday morning at the age of 85 prompted an outpouring of praise for just those qualities from men who had played football for him, from coaches with whom he had worked, and from young students whom he had never met.

But behind the praise and the tributes was the knowledge that he had been fired on Nov. 9, after 46 years as head coach of Penn State University's football team, amid criticism that he didn't do enough in 2002 when he was told that one his former assistant coaches had allegedly sexually abused a boy in the team's showers.

Mr. Paterno was pronounced dead at 9:25 a.m. Sunday at Mount Nittany Medical Center of complications from lung cancer. He was surrounded by family members.

"He died as he lived," said a statement released by the Paterno family. "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."

On Nov. 5, a Dauphin County grand jury issued a shocking report that changed the coach and the school forever.

The grand jury charged Mr. Paterno's former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, with 40 counts involving the sexual abuse of young boys. The report also accused athletic director Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, the university's senior vice president for finance, of perjury and failure to report the alleged rape of one boy in a football locker-room shower. All three of them have denied the charges.

Mr. Paterno and university President Graham Spanier were fired Nov. 9 in a unanimous vote by the school's board of trustees, in part because they said Mr. Paterno failed a moral responsibility to report the locker-room incident to authorities outside the university. Mr. Curley, who also has lung cancer, is on administrative leave, while Mr. Schultz has retired.

"I didn't know which way to go ... and rather than get in there and make a mistake...," Mr. Paterno said in his last interview, which was published in the Washington Post Jan. 14. "So I just did what I thought was best. I talked to people that I thought would be, if there was a problem, that would be following up on it."

Trustees have faced mounting criticism over the handling of Mr. Paterno's firing. Some trustees have said they regret that Mr. Paterno was notified by phone rather than in person.

Alumni have vehemently voiced their support of Mr. Paterno and their discontent with the trustees, calling on them to step down. Hundreds of alumni have attended town hall-style meetings with new Penn State President Rodney Erickson throughout the Northeast, including in Pittsburgh.

On Nov. 18, days after he was fired, Mr. Paterno was diagnosed with lung cancer. Then he refractured his pelvis on Dec. 11 following a fall at his home. He initially suffered the injury in August after being accidentally hit in practice by wide receiver Devon Smith. His health quickly deteriorated.

"I can't help but think he died of a broken heart," said ESPN analyst Matt Millen, a former Penn State All-American.

Hours before he was fired, Mr. Paterno called the scandal "one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more."

Mr. Erickson and the board of trustees thanked Mr. Paterno Sunday for helping make the university a better place.

"We grieve for the loss of Joe Paterno, a great man who made us a greater university," the statement said. "His dedication to ensuring his players were successful both on the field and in life is legendary, and his commitment to education is unmatched in college football. His life, work and generosity will be remembered always."

Mr. Paterno, who was born Dec. 21, 1926, in Brooklyn, succeeded his mentor, Rip Engle, as Penn State coach in 1966. Affectionately known as JoePa, he went on to become one of the most successful coaches in college football history.

Following his third year as head coach, Mr. Paterno visited Toledo for a high school football clinic, sponsored by The Blade on Jan. 18, 1969, at the University of Toledo just days after turning down the head coaching job with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Mr. Paterno also sat down with then-Blade sports writer Mike Tressler about a week later after speaking at the Toledo Hall of Fame dinner on Jan. 26. Mr. Tressler wrote "it was refreshing for [Mr. Paterno] to find a football fan at the Toledo Hall of Fame dinner who wasn't aware he was meeting the current acknowledged mastermind of the sport."

Mr. Paterno had just polished off an 11-0 season with a 15-14 victory over Kansas in the Orange Bowl thanks to a successful two-point conversion.

While Mr. Paterno's time in Toledo was brief, he did face both Bowling Green State University and the University of Toledo on the gridiron at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pa.

Mr. Paterno earned two milestone victories against the Falcons. His 200th career win came on Sept. 5, 1987 -- a 45-19 victory over Bowling Green -- while his 300th win came on Sept. 12, 1998 -- a 48-3 pounding of the Falcons.

The Rockets were a little more fortunate, spoiling Mr. Paterno and the Nittany Lions' home-opener in 2000, coming away with a 24-6 victory on Sept. 2.

A Brown University graduate who had planned to attend law school at Boston University, Mr. Paterno compiled a 409-136-3 record as head coach. He coached 23 top-10 teams, five unbeaten teams, was named national coach of the year five times and captured two national championships, in 1982 and 1986.

Mr. Paterno coached more than 350 players who signed National Football League contracts, including 33 first-round draft picks. He also coached 79 first-team All-Americans and 49 Academic All-Americans.

"Coach Paterno should be remembered and revered," said Paul Posluszny, a Hopewell High School graduate and former Penn State All-American linebacker who plays for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Mr. Paterno was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2006.

During his tenure as an assistant coach, Mr. Paterno started dating the former Suzanne Pohland of Latrobe. He married her in 1962, the same year she graduated from Penn State.

"I've been very, very fortunate, God almighty," Mr. Paterno said. "If I hadn't stayed here, I wouldn't have met Sue. Nobody in the world has a better wife than I do."

When Mr. Engle decided to retire after the 1965 season, he tapped Mr. Paterno to take over for him. Mr. Paterno became Penn State's 14th head coach Feb. 19, 1966, and won his debut seven months later, a 15-7 victory over Maryland.

Mr. Paterno served as athletic director in 1979-82. He helped organize fund-raising campaigns, including the one that resulted in a new convocation center and basketball arena on campus in the early 1990s.

Mr. Paterno was instrumental in getting Penn State -- an independent for 106 years -- into the Big Ten. He also was the driving force behind the cancellation of the football series with rival Pitt, which will resume again in 2016 and 2017.

Mr. Paterno is survived by his wife, five children and 17 grandchildren. His children, all Penn State graduates, include daughters Diana Giegerich and Mary Kathryn Hort and sons David, Jay (Joseph, Jr.) and George Scott.

In lieu of flowers or gifts, the family requests that donations be made to the Special Olympics of Pennsylvania or the Penn State-THON, the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Ron Musselman is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.

Contact Ron Musselman at: rmusselman@post-gazette.com.



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