He was a legend in tiny State College, Pa.—a larger-than-life figure whose giant bronze statue greeted football fans outside the university stadium. There was a wing of the university named after him; class lectures devoted to him; he was perhaps the only football coach in modern history to also be a tenured professor.
But on Sunday, Joe Paterno, 85, died of lung cancer just two and a half months after being fired from the university in what was one of the swiftest falls of grace in recent memory. Back in November, a longtime member of his staff, Jerry Sandusky, was indicted on charges of molesting 10 children over a decade and a half. Paterno, who was not charged with any crime, nevertheless was faulted for having been informed early on about Sandusky’s behavior with children and having failed to call the police.
“His loss leaves a void in our lives that will never be filled,” Paterno’s family said in a statement on Sunday. “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. 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.”
For children, dressing up as Penn State legend Joe Paterno—cuffed khaki pants, oversized glasses, his signature jacket—had been a rite of passage, at least until the scandal hit. Teenagers in sports leagues wouldn’t put their surnames on the backs of their jerseys, as was Paterno’s gospel. “It’s the name on the front that matters,” he often said, referring to the team. The local ice creamery touted “Peachy Paterno” as its most popular flavor.
The family had previously said Paterno’s cancer was treatable, but lung cancer is particularly insidious, and by January, the legendary coach seemed to be preparing for the worst. He had already transferred ownership of his house to his wife, Sue, for a dollar plus “love and affection.” And a little more than a week before his death, he gave a kind of exit interview with The Washington Post, in which he expressed regret at not having done more, but explained the allegations against Sandusky thus: “I didn’t know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was,” he said. “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.”
Paterno was born in Brooklyn to second-generation Italian immigrants. He attended Brown University, where he played quarterback and cornerback, and had planned to go to law school. But he ended up at Penn State, where he coached as an assistant from 1950 to 1965, becoming head coach in 1966. Over the years, he turned down lucrative job offers to stay at Penn State—including one, in 1972, to coach the New England Patriots. Instead of accepting the $1.3 million, he and his wife stayed in their modest one-story home just a few blocks from Penn State’s campus—where Paterno was making $35,000 a year.
His belief in “success with honor” (the slogan of the Nittany Lions), the idea that principles ought to come before money, was part of what made him such a hero at home and in the wider, increasingly bottom-line-driven world of college sports. His players had among the highest graduation rates. He would bench them for bad grades. And over the years, he and his wife, Sue, invested millions back into the school.
“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,” Michael O’Brien, the author of No Ordinary Joe, wrote in a 1999 biography of Paterno.
And that was part of why the accusations that he’d failed to act on knowledge that Sandusky had molested a boy on school grounds stung so deep, jettisoning overnight his legacy as the most honorable and “winningest” coach, at 409 games.
Paterno was reportedly told of an incident between Sandusky and a young boy back in 2002. He reported a version of the account to the athletic director, and one other administrator, who say they took away Sandusky’s keys. But nobody went to the police. Sandusky continued to head The Second Mile, a popular charity for young boys—where he allegedly groomed his prey. And he continued to hang out on school grounds.
As news of Paterno’s death spread throughout Penn State, it was hard not to feel sorry for the man.
On Saturday night, as news that he was in “serious condition” began to circulate, students shoveled snow from the area around Paterno’s statue, and placed handwritten notes and candles at its feet. Hundreds of students bundled in winter parkas attended a vigil at Beaver Stadium. The entrance to McKee Street, where Joe and Sue had lived, was barricaded by police, barring crowds from gathering around the house.
Fran Fisher, the well-known Penn State broadcaster, told The Daily Beast the school would “never be the same. His legacy is the thousands of lives he touched, the football players who’ve gone on to be much more than ex-Penn State football players.”
Alex Angert, a senior at PSU and sports editor of the student newspaper, The Collegian, said, “He was like a grandpa to students on campus. To a lot of students, it’s like they lost a family member.”
Angert was inclined to remember Paterno for the good things: the historic wins, producing players who earned better grades than at virtually every other Big Ten school, the time and money Paterno gave back to the local charities and initiatives.
But Angert was aware the rest of the world might not do the same. “Only time will tell whether people will remember him for the first 99 percent of his life, or the last 1 percent,” he said.