Joe Paterno, Fallen Penn State Coach, Dies of Lung Cancer at 85

Joe Paterno
Joe Paterno on Oct. 29, 2011 at Beaver Stadium in State College, Penn. Photographer: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Joe Paterno died of lung cancer surrounded by family members yesterday, just over two months after he was fired as Pennsylvania State University’s football coach, ending a record-setting 46-year run in which he collected 409 wins and two national championships. He was 85.

Paterno died at 9:25 a.m. yesterday at Mount Nittany Medical Center in State College, Pennsylvania, the town Paterno had called home since 1950.

Paterno helped build Penn State into one of college football’s most prestigious programs over the past six decades and his career win total is the most at the sport’s highest level. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in November, a few days after being dismissed by school officials because of his handling of a child-sex abuse scandal involving former assistant Jerry Sandusky, who was charged with assaulting boys in Penn State’s athletic complex.

“His longevity over time and his impact on college football is remarkable,” said University of Nebraska Athletic Director Tom Osborne, who had 255 wins as the school’s coach from 1973-97. “Anybody who knew Joe feels badly about the circumstances. I suspect the emotional turmoil of the last few weeks might have played into it.”

Fallout from the scandal brought an abrupt end to Paterno’s 61-year tenure at the central Pennsylvania campus known as Happy Valley. He had arrived in State College in 1950 and spent 16 years as an assistant under Rip Engle before taking over as coach the day after Engle retired.

‘Backed Away’

“I didn’t know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was,” Paterno told the Washington Post in his final interview this month. “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.”

As coach of the same major college football team from 1966 until his dismissal, Paterno, known as “JoePa,” set a record for longevity, surpassing Amos Alonzo Stagg, who spent 41 years at the University of Chicago. A bronze statue stands outside 107,000-seat Beaver Stadium in honor of Paterno, who won national championships in 1982 and 1986, and totaled a record 24 bowl victories at Penn State.

Paterno’s tenure on the staff had spanned 12 U.S. presidents and more than 690 games, more than half of all those played by Penn State since its football program started in 1887.

Paterno set a record for major college wins in 2001, breaking Paul “Bear” Bryant’s record of 323, and held the mark until Bobby Bowden passed him in 2003. The two coaches were neck-and-neck until Bowden retired after the 2009 season with 388 wins over 34 years.

Bowden and Paterno

“We had many great battles over the 40 plus years, and many great times together with our wives on various coaching trips,” Bowden said yesterday in an e-mailed statement. “Joe was about as good a coach as anybody -- with all of the great wins, championships, and the things he gave to college football. He graduated his players, made a wonderful impact on so many of those young men, and was the heart of Penn State University for so many decades.”

Paterno broke Eddie Robinson’s Division I record of 408 victories at Grambling State University when the Nittany Lions beat Illinois on Oct. 29, 2011.

It was the final career win for Paterno, who was fired by Penn State’s board of trustees 11 days later. Paterno trails only John Gagliardi of Saint John’s University in Minnesota for the most wins in college football history.

Penn State plans to honor Paterno for his “many contributions and to remember his remarkable life and legacy,” a statement attributed to school President Rodney Erickson and the board of trustees said.

Remembering Paterno

“We grieve for the loss of Joe Paterno, a great man who made us a greater university,” the school said in a statement. “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.”

As the child molestation scandal unfolded last year, Paterno said he was shocked and deeply saddened by the charges against Sandusky, who was Paterno’s defensive coordinator. Sandusky retired at the end of the 1999 season.

In 2002, graduate assistant Mike McQueary saw Sandusky sexually assaulting a 10-year-old boy in the Penn State locker room showers and reported it to Paterno, according to a grand jury indictment. Paterno said he wasn’t aware of specific details of the attack and referred the matter to university officials. As the furor intensified over school officials’ lack of action against Sandusky, Paterno said he wished he “had done more” and announced he’d retire at the end of the season.

Paterno’s Firing

The board of trustees fired Paterno and President Graham Spanier the next day, saying it was necessary to make a change in leadership. After the decision, students supporting Paterno clashed with police in downtown State College, where protesters overturned a television van, tore down light poles and threw bottles and other objects.

“As both man and coach, Joe Paterno confronted adversities, both past and present, with grace and forbearance,” Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett said in a statement. “His place in our state’s history is secure.”

Paterno’s legacy had extended far beyond football.

His thick glasses, rolled-up pant legs and white athletic socks became as much a symbol of Penn State football as the team’s white helmets and plain jerseys, which don’t have player names on the back.

Paterno and Tradition

“When you think of college football and its tradition, you can’t help but picture those dark glasses, black shoes and plain uniforms that were his style and mark,” Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville said in a statement. “Like many coaches, I grew up watching and learning from one of the greatest tutors and mentors of the game.”

Paterno emphasized academics as much as winning football games. In his second year as head coach, he allowed his best lineman, Mike Reid, to take the season off so he could star in a school play.

Paterno coached dozens of All-Americans, including 1973 Heisman Trophy winner John Cappelletti and former NFL star LaVar Arrington, mentored Pro Football Hall-of-Famers Franco Harris and Jack Ham, and was voted Coach of the Year by his colleagues a record four times.

Paterno also chose to stay put in State College rather than coach in the National Football League.

‘Bit of an Egghead’

“Why leave?’‘ Paterno explained in a 1995 interview with the Tampa Tribune. ‘‘It’s got everything I want: small town, a college town. I can walk home after games. I’ve been accepted as a faculty member, not treated as a dumb jock. I can do things that suit me intellectually; I’m a little bit of an egghead.”

Paterno and his wife Suzanne Pohland, a Penn State graduate, donated more than $4 million to the university over the years to endow faculty positions and scholarships and to build an interfaith spiritual center and a sports museum.

Joseph Vincent Paterno was born in Brooklyn, New York, on Dec. 21, 1926, and grew up in a neighborhood where, he recalled, “playing daily at sports was our work: not only touch football but also punchball and stickball,” according to a Penn State biography.

As a high-school senior, he was quarterback of a Brooklyn Prep team that lost only one game -- to St. Cecilia High School of Englewood, New Jersey, a team coached by Vince Lombardi before he began his Hall of Fame NFL career.

After serving in the U.S. Army, Paterno went to Brown University, where he played football under Engle. The skinny quarterback led the Bears to an 8-1 record in his senior season, prompting writer Stanley Woodward to describe him as a player “who can’t run, can’t pass -- just thinks and wins.”

Staying at Penn State

Paterno changed his mind about attending law school when Engle left for Penn State and offered Paterno a job as an assistant coach. The city kid quickly grew restless in the rural college town.

“After a few weeks, I told Rip, ‘I’m getting out of here before I go nuts,’” Paterno once said. “You better start looking around for another coach.”

Paterno decided to stay and became a Penn State institution.

The Nittany Lions posted perfect records in 1968, 1969 and 1973, but didn’t win their first national championship until the 1982 season, which they capped with a Sugar Bowl victory over University of Georgia. Penn State won its second national title in 1986 with a 12-0 record and went undefeated for the fifth time under Paterno in 1994, including the first Rose Bowl win in school history.

Paterno turned down multiple opportunities to leave Penn State, including a 1973 offer to coach the NFL’s Boston Patriots.

Although his annual salary was only $35,000 at the time, Paterno passed up a deal that would have paid him $1.4 million a year, plus a 5 percent ownership stake in the Patriots. In his next-to-last season at Penn State, his salary was $1.02 million.

Paterno and his wife had five children -- sons David, George Scott and Jay, who was an assistant football coach at Penn State for 17 seasons, and daughters Diana Giegerich and Mary Kathryn Hort -- and 17 grandchildren.

“When he decided to forego a career in law and make coaching his vocation, his father Angelo had but one command: make an impact,” Paterno’s family said in a statement. “As the last 61 years have shown, Joe made an incredible impact. He leaves us 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.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE