Joe Paterno, the man synonymous with Penn State football, died Sunday after developing complications from lung cancer. He was 85.
Paterno was an iconic figure on the sports landscape. He coached at Penn State for 61 years, though his long tenure ended amid a child sexual abuse scandal.
The man Penn Staters fondly called “JoePa” seemed to cement his legacy last Oct. 29, when he won his 409th game, a Division I record. It was the capper on a Hall-Of-Fame career that included two national championships and five undefeated seasons. But days later, the golden legacy turned a distinct shade of gray when Jerry Sandusky, Paterno’s longtime assistant coach, was arrested and charged with multiple counts of child sexual abuse.
Then, on Nov. 9, university Board of Trustees Vice Chairman John Surma announced Paterno’s firing, saying “Joe Paterno is no longer the head football coach, effective immediately.”
It was an abrupt end to a 46-year career as head coach. One of the reasons given for Paterno’s dismissal was that he didn’t do enough when he was alerted to Sandusky’s alleged crimes. That was a big irony — Joe Paterno not doing enough? This was the guy who did so much for the school he loved. Longtime Penn State football broadcaster Fran Fisher remembers Paterno winning his first national championship in 1983 and then speaking before the Penn State Board of Trustees, “challenging them to make this university in all aspects a champion, if you will, a national champion.”
According to Fisher, wildly successful fund-raising campaigns followed one after another.
Known as the voice of Penn State football, 88-year-old Fisher knew Paterno better than a lot of people. When he’s asked to describe the man behind the trademark thick glasses, rolled up khaki pants and black football shoes, he rattles off a string of adjectives: “brash, confident, affable, literate.”
A State College, Pa. Deity
Paterno settled in an area of Pennsylvania known as Happy Valley, though he still sounded Brooklyn, N.Y.-born. At a 2008 pep rally, Paterno told the crowd how the Nixon White House called him to honor his undefeated 1968 and ’69 seasons.
“‘The president would like you to come down and we’re going to give you a trophy for having the longest winning streak in the country,'” he recalled them saying. “I told ’em to shove it!”
To be fair, there were those — mostly outside Happy Valley — who felt like telling Paterno the same thing.
His prickly nature rubbed some the wrong way, as did the manner in which he was deified in State College, Pa. But the deifiers didn’t back down — what other famous head coach would interrupt his morning jog to stop and take pictures with a local and her family, the way Paterno once did with State College resident Andrea Blumstein?
“That was it for me,” Blumstein says. “The top thing that you could ever do in this town is meet Joe Paterno so I will cherish that day I met him.”
For that matter, what other head coach at a huge football school would think of “student athlete” as more than an empty phrase? Paterno, the literate guy who translated classical readings from Latin to English in high school, embarked on a grand experiment at Penn State to prove that top-notch football players could still excel in school. And, for the most part, it worked. Final confirmation came in December from the New America Foundation that Penn State football was ranked first academically among the top 25 teams in the country.
Remembering Paterno’s Legacy
The night he was fired, Penn State students took to the streets demanding that Paterno coach the final home game of the season, which of course he didn’t. Blumstein says it was an unfortunate end to Paterno’s professional story.
“Everybody in this town and in the Penn State community would always say, ‘Oh, he’ll die on that field,'” she says. “He’ll never have that exit, that grace of leaving that field on his terms.”
Of course, even Paterno acknowledged that was partly his fault. In a statement released after the Sandusky scandal broke, he said, “I wish I had done more.”
The scandal is now part of his legacy, but those who knew and revered him stress that it’s only part.
In a November 2011 piece for Esquire, Penn State graduate Chris Raymond wrote, “If the Paterno way is discarded along with Paterno, then this tragedy will have been miserably, terribly compounded.”