News Column

Joe Paterno Dead at 85

Jan. 23, 2012

Jerry DiPaola and Rob Rossi

Joe Paterno, who became the winningest major college football coach and the face of Penn State University only to be fired amid arguably sports' biggest scandal, died over the weekend. He was 85.

"His loss leaves a void in our lives that will never be filled," the Paterno family said in a statement. "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."

Paterno died of metastatic small cell carcinoma at Mount Nittany Medical Center, the hospital announced.

He was surrounded by family and friends, including ex-players, said Kenny Jackson, a former assistant coach who played wide receiver on the 1982 national championship team.

"I was fortunate. I was at the hospital the last two days, spent time with him and the family -- and it was so good to see them all together," Jackson said. "All the grandkids, everybody was giving Joe love. He died at peace."

Paterno had battled lung cancer since mid-November and had been hospitalized after breaking his pelvis in a fall at his State College home on Dec. 10.

He most recently was hospitalized Jan. 13 for what the family said were minor complications from his lung cancer. However, his health took a turn late this past week, and his wife, Sue, called for members of the Paterno and Penn State families to come say "last goodbyes," Jackson said.

Funeral arrangements are not yet known, Jackson said.

Massive reaction

Word of Paterno's death sent Penn State alumni, former players and fans to social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook to share their thoughts.

"We should not be discouraged by his death but encouraged by his life ... it would be a blessing to impact others the way he did," Devon Still, a Nittany Lions senior defensive tackle, said on Twitter.

The political world also chimed in, both locally and from afar.

"He was an outstanding American who was respected not only on the field of play but in life generally -- and he was, without a doubt, a true icon in the world of sports," former President George H.W. Bush said.

Gov. Tom Corbett said Paterno's "legacy as the winningest coach in major college football and his generosity to Penn State as an institution and to his players stand as monuments to his life."

Added Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald: "Beyond the football field, JoePa helped make Penn State the university that is so highly regarded today."

Paterno's full-time successor as head coach, Bill O'Brien, released a statement hours before his New England Patriots, for whom he is offensive coordinator, were scheduled to play the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game.

"We also offer our condolences to the Penn State community and, in particular, to those who wore the Penn State colors, our Nittany Lion football players and alumni," said O'Brien, hired early this month to replace interim head coach Tom Bradley. "Today they lost a great man, coach, mentor and, in many cases, a father figure, and we extend our deepest sympathies.

"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."

The Paterno legacy

Paterno elevated Penn State to prominence during his 46-year tenure as head coach. He won 409 games and two national championships and led the Nittany Lions to five undefeated seasons.

"To many of us, he was the face of the university," said Monica Thomas, 49, of Harrison City, who graduated from Penn State in 1985 and has two children enrolled there. "He managed to run a tight ship, graduate athletes and set a good example. He managed to walk the walk."

The fondness for Paterno was evident Saturday night, when reports of his failing health first broke. Since then, mourners have flocked to the bronze Paterno statue outside Beaver Stadium. Also, a moment of silence was held at the church the Paternos usually attended.

At the university, which alumni have said was known mostly as "farmer's high school" before an expansion of academic facilities that coincided with the height of the football team's success in the 1970s and 1980s, Paterno was larger than life.

University book stores sold life-size cardboard cutouts of Paterno. The school's famous creamery named a flavor for him, "Peachy Paterno."

Paterno's "Success with Honor" mantra and his players' execution on the football field and in the classroom became the envy of university administrators nationwide.

Yet as much as Paterno's success was celebrated, his fall was equally as stunning.

The end came in early November after accusations emerged that former longtime defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky had sexually abused 10 children. A state grand jury announced criminal charges against Sandusky on Nov. 5, with 40 counts related to child sexual abuse against eight alleged victims, several of whom were assaulted in university football facilities. Those charges and an additional dozen filed last month are pending.

The grand jury, which began under Corbett's term as attorney general, cleared Paterno of legal wrongdoing. But he came under widespread criticism for failing to do more to stop the abuse. University trustees fired him Nov. 9 in a phone call from U.S. Steel Chairman John Surma, whose brother played for Paterno in the late 1960s.

The late-night decision drew nationwide attention and set off a student-led riot in downtown State College.

Over time, Paterno's full legacy will be carried forward by countless people, said Anthony Lubrano, 51, of Glenmoore, who graduated in 1982.

"Joe Paterno stands for so much more than that one event," said Lubrano, who hopes to seek a seat on the board of trustees. "His legacy is truly all of us. His deeds are certainly important, but the greatest legacy of Joe Paterno is that he has touched the lives of so many people both on and off the football field in a positive way."

In recent months, Paterno appeared to be a shell of his former self, the weight of the investigation perhaps wearing on him. Seven years earlier, after a 4-7 season the fourth losing season in five years he chased then-Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley and then-President Graham Spanier from his home when they asked him to retire. Curley is awaiting trial on charges of perjury and failing to alert authorities about Sandusky's activities. Spanier resigned in November under pressure from the trustees.

"I am absolutely devastated by the developments in this (Sandusky) case," Paterno said of the scandal. " I grieve for the children and their families, and I pray for their comfort and relief. This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.

The trustees are facing criticism for the handling of Paterno's dismissal and the Sandusky scandal. Chairman Steve Garban and Surma relinquished their roles on Friday. Karen B. Peetz, vice chairman and CEO of financial markets and treasury services for The Bank of New York Mellon Corp., was elected to replace Garban.

Spanier said today that Paterno "provided unprecedented leadership for academic advancement, philanthropy, and athletic excellence and integrity for more than 60 years."

Lifelong association

Born Dec. 21, 1926, in Brooklyn, N.Y., Paterno was the oldest of Angelo and Florence Paterno's four children. He attended Brown University and played quarterback under Rip Engle.

His lifelong association with Penn State started as a pit stop on his way to law school.

Paterno followed Engle to Penn State in 1950 to work briefly as an assistant coach until he could save some money.

Yet Paterno felt drawn to what became his life's work.

"I had a feeling I could do some things here with Rip," he said.

Paterno succeeded Engle after the 1965 season and got his first win in his first game, a 15-7 victory over Maryland, on Sept. 17, 1966. He employed a simple football philosophy: Success with Honor.

From the day he was hired as head coach, Paterno embarked on "The Grand Experiment," an attempt to combine athletics with academics.

Penn State's 85 percent graduation success rate was tops among teams in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll in 2009.

Penn State graduates 80 percent of its players in six years or less, according to a New America Foundation analysis. That was the highest rate among teams that advanced to bowl games during the 2011 season. The Nittany Lions also show no achievement gap between black and white players, a rare accomplishment for Division I football teams, according to the analysis.

Penn State president Rodney Erickson, who has downplayed the lucrative football program's role in shaping Penn State as an academic power, said in a joint statement along with the trustees that Paterno's "life, work and generosity will be remembered always."

"The university plans to honor him for his many contributions and to remember his remarkable life and legacy," Erickson said. "We are all deeply saddened."

Paterno, personally

Paterno married the former Suzanne Pohland of Latrobe in 1962, the year she graduated from Penn State, and the couple had five children. All became Penn State graduates. In addition to his wife, Paterno is survived by his sons Joseph Jr., known as Jay, David and Scott; his daughters Diana Giegerich and Mary Kathryn Hort; and 17 grandchildren.

Despite his widespread fame and success, the Paternos remained committed to living in the same ranch-style house only blocks from campus. He often walked to his office and to Beaver Stadium on game days. The Paterno phone number remains listed in the phone book.

The Paternos are credited with giving an estimated $4 million to various university fundraising efforts. In 1984, the family established the Paterno Libraries Endowment with gifts totaling $120,000. By 2010, its value had grown to more than $4 million, with a personal donation of $250,000.

"He has a library named after him," former Penn State quarterback Kevin Newsome said. "That shows his character."

Source: (c) 2012 The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.)

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