Penn State football legend Joe Paterno dies at 85

Former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno passed away around 10 a.m. Sunday morning, after battling complications from lung cancer. Paterno, affectionately known as "JoePa," became synonymous with Penn State University by devoting sixty-one years of his life to the school (forty-six as the school's head football coach), where, with 409 victories, he became the winningest coach in major-college football history. He won twenty-four bowl games, two national titles, was named National Coach of the Year five times, and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2007.

Paterno was a sainted figure in Pennsylvania's Happy Valley, who transcended sports and became known for his high academic and moral standards. He was mentioned in the same breath as coaching legends like Knute Rockne and Bear Bryant, and was affectionately known for his unique sartorial habits on the sidelines; sporting thick glasses, rolled-up pants, white socks, black football cleats, and that ubiquitous windbreaker. With all that said, Paterno's legacy sadly became irredeemably tarnished after the child sex-abuse scandal involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. Due to what Brent Musburger called Paterno's "lapse in judgment" in failing to report Sandusky's heinous deeds, Paterno was fired by the board of trustees on November 9, along with university president Graham Spanier. For Paterno fans, it was as if Gandhi had been caught sneaking food during a hunger strike.

Paterno was born in Brooklyn in 1926, spent time in the army, and studied English literature at Brown where he played quarterback on the football team, before landing at Penn State. He married his wife Suzanne (a Penn State graduate like their five children) in 1962. According to a statement released by the family:

"It is with great sadness that we announce that Joe Paterno passed away earlier today. His loss leaves a void in our lives that will never be filled. 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."


Commentarium (13 Comments)

Jan 22 12 - 2:24pm

How sad that he was fired because others claimed that he should have reported an incident that he might not have even had any concrete knowledge of. This was a case of “guilty until proven innocent.” Now Mr. Paterno will never know if his name was cleared of the scandal smeared on him by others. R.I.P. JoePa.

Jan 23 12 - 12:22am

No, he definitely had concrete knowledge of it. McQueary told him he saw Sandusky and a 10-year-old boy in the shower together.

Jan 22 12 - 3:11pm

Well, as a current Penn State student, the last few months have been pretty interesting to watch unfold. Now, let me be clear, I'm every bit the liberal artfag that you would expect to visit a site like Nerve, but just because I don't personally play sports, doesn't mean I don't have a bit of a fondness for Paterno. My mother is a Penn State alumnus and spent a lot of her life in admiration of Paterno. As such, he was always peripherally a figure in my life as well. The Sandusky scandal was pretty tough for her to handle (though she bravely admitted his failings, unlike a lot of my fellow students who think he hasn't done anything wrong at all), and it was kind of sad for me as well. Again, coming from a non-sports player, I can't help but appreciate the way Paterno pushed for academic and moral integrity in his program. The Paterno cult of personality has grown increasingly annoying to me over the years, but there's no denying the man himself pushed college football to new and interesting places. Just because his followers are a bunch of animals, doesn't mean he himself should be sacrificed as a Fred Phelps figure. The Sandusky scandal is, unfortunately, very damning of his character and the whole "okay we'll let your horrible crimes slide just this one time if you keep bringing us fame and money" mentality I and many others find disgustingly prevalent in professional sports, but it doesn't mean the 60 years he spent building a respectable institution no longer count. He's just human. Rather disappointingly so, but human all the same. This scandal should not be forgotten or swept under the rug to avoid complicating Paterno's place among the all-time greats, but it also shouldn't ruin the very real work he did in making Penn State football something even non-football players could respect.

If you couldn't tell by the number of "but"s in my comment, I have a lot of conflicted feelings about Paterno and the last few months' events. I think most people do, sports hooligans and sports haters aside. I do think, though, that Paterno's good work at least somewhat counterbalances his one great sin, and that his death shouldn't be an occasion for celebration no matter how (righteously) angry you may be about his inaction in the Sandusky case. He was larger than life in some very real ways, but not enough to keep him from very human failure. This may tarnish his image as an icon, but it's best to consider him as a man and not an icon. Only then can you reconcile his successes and failures and appropriately respect his passing.

Jan 22 12 - 3:58pm

Well said. None of us is wholly the person we are on the worst day of our lives, nor are we wholly the person we are on the best day of our lives. We can honor and respect Paterno for everything he gave to improve the educational experience at Penn State, and we can at the same time condemn him for not having done more to put an end to Sandusky's regime of child rape.

Jan 22 12 - 4:28pm

I'm sorry, but I don't find 'success in football' and 'allowing for child rape' to be equal measures on the scale. I think if he were a man and not an icon there would be little question that the rape he allowed to continue is his most important legacy, and he is appropriately reviled for it.

Jan 22 12 - 5:16pm

Bravo to you for not equating the two. I don't know anyone who does.

What is your evidence that Paterno "allowed" the child abuse to continue? I hate to rain on your parade - actually I couldn't care less - but there is little to no evidence that what you alledge occured.

Jan 22 12 - 10:31pm

I have little emotional attachment to football, but I can understand why people do. I think it's too simplistic to say that Paterno is hailed for "success in football." Clearly, football programs -- Penn State, especially -- are huge moneymakers for universities, and that is what "success in football" (in quotes) seems to mean to the cynical among us. Paterno, while helping the university financially, certainly did more than improve a sports program. He was an influential almost spiritual-like figure in a close-knit sports-oriented community. This is not simply a case of OMG FOOTBALL FANS ARE SAVAGES THEY LIKE THROWING BALLS ALMOST AS MUCH AS THEY LIKE RAPING CHILDREN!!! (/sarcasm) This seems more like a case of a bunch of young kids away from home for the first time in their lives looking for guidance in their new community. Paterno filled that role for many of the football players, fans, heck, even nearby Penn State residents. No wonder it is so difficult for some to accept that this idol had failings. No wonder so many are questioning the facts of the case. This is not an insult to the victims of Sandusky's actions. This is a testament of how important community and shared values still are. This is also an example of how blind faith can result in less-than-critical thinking.

Jan 22 12 - 5:13pm

"Paterno was fired by the board of trustees on November 9, along with university president Graham Spanier."

Indeed, he was not fired. In fact, Paterno was kept on the payroll until the end of the semester, despite him being removed as the head coach of the football team.

"Due to what Brent Musburger called Paterno's "lapse in judgment" in failing to report Sandusky's heinous deeds..."

What does Brent Musberger's opinion have to do with anything? Ridiculous.

"With all that said, Paterno's legacy, sadly, became irredeemably tarnished after the child sex-abuse scandal involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. "

Not "irredeemably" tarnished among fairminded people. The real story will come out, I suspect, in the years to come. If you need a reference, refer to McMartin Preschool.

Jan 22 12 - 11:04pm

There's a lesson here:

What would Brent Musberger do?

Jan 22 12 - 8:31pm

ANYONE who has ANY inkling of crimes against children needs to take responsibility to see that something is done about it. Paterno's actions are inexcusable. He is as guilty as Sandusky. Joe can save a seat in hell for his buddies Sandusky and McQuery.

Jan 22 12 - 10:24pm

I respectfully disagree that not reporting child rape and assault is the same as perpetrating it.

Jan 23 12 - 1:11am

Is that right Bev? And how would you feel if your neighbor knew one of your kids was being molested and did nothing about it?

Jan 23 12 - 12:24pm

Don't care about football. Don't care about the weird cult that is Penn State culture. Respect all human life. Thoughts are with the family in mourning. Paterno's actions, as well as the actions of his subordinates, showed a shocking lack of good judgment. BUT what mystifies me more is the weird siege mentality of people who are so willing to jump to his defense.