Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal turned coach Joe Paterno into a broken man ‘overnight’

Editor’s note: Another beautiful portrait of Joe Paterno, written by The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

STATE COLLEGE, Penn. – Joseph Vincent Paterno, the legendary Penn State University football coach with his jet-black hair, rolled up trousers and thick black glasses, died at 9:25 this morning at Mount Nittany Medical Center in State College. He was 85.

“It is with great sadness that we announce that Joe Paterno passed away earlier today. He died as he lived. He fought hard until the end, stayed positive… (He) thought only of others and constantly reminded everyone of how blessed his life had been,” according to a statement released this morning by the Paterno family.

Mr. Paterno was diagnosed with lung cancer Nov. 18, just days after he was fired as head coach in the aftermath of the child sex abuse charges against his former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, that stunned the nation, rocked Penn State and turned a legend into a broken man overnight.

Hours before he was fired, Paterno called the scandal “one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”

(This story appeared in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Jan. 22, 2012.)

JoePa, as he was affectionately known, was a member of the Nittany Lions staff for 62 seasons, including the last 46 as head coach.

Mr. Paterno, born Dec. 21, 1926, in Brooklyn, succeeded his mentor, Rip Engle, as Penn State coach in 1966. Mr. Paterno went on to become one of the most successful coaches in college football history.

A Brown University graduate who had planned to attend law school at Boston University, Mr. Paterno compiled a 409-136-3 record as head coach. He coached 23 top-10 teams, five unbeaten teams, was named national coach of the year five times and captured two national championships, in 1982 and 1986.

Mr. Paterno was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in December 2007, and his players had a high graduation rate under his direction.

“You look at his record and history, and then you look at all the pro athletes, All-Americans, doctors, lawyers and great people he’s produced, and it’s unreal, said Steelers great Franco Harris, a running back who played for Mr. Paterno from 1969 to ’71. “He built himself quite a legacy.”

Before Penn State went from major independent to joining the well-established Big Ten Conference in 1993, Paterno’s admirers and detractors often referred to him as St. Joe.

“There were times when I wanted to scream at him,” former tight end Mike McCloskey once said. “There were times when I wanted to punch him out. He kept after me, challenging me. It took me the better part of two years to finally realize there was nothing personal in it. He wasn’t picking on me. He was trying to make me better.”

Mr. Paterno’s teams often reflected his conservative values — featuring no-nonsense offenses and nationally ranked defenses. Under Mr. Paterno, the school picked up the nickname Linebacker U. He captured Coach of the Year honors five times.

“The guy coached a few thousand players, and whether you were a starter or a nobody, he remembered your name,” said former Penn State wide receiver Gregg Garrity, who also played for the Steelers. “That’s impressive.”

Mr. Paterno grew up in the Flatbush section of New York City during the Great Depression and was an avid fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team. He nearly left high school because the tuition of $20 a month was too much of a burden for his family.

As a senior at Brooklyn Prep in 1944, he played on the best Catholic football team in the city. Its only loss was to a New Jersey team coached by Vince Lombardi.

Under Mr. Engle at Brown, Mr. Paterno played quarterback — he was 15-3 as the starter — and defensive back and majored in English literature. He also played two seasons of basketball, and his freshman coach was late Pro Football Hall of Famer Weeb Ewbank. Sportswriter Stanley Woodward once described Paterno as a quarterback who “can’t run, can’t pass — just thinks and wins.”

When Mr. Engle left Brown to take the Penn State job in 1950, his backfield coach, Bill Doolittle, decided not to join him, so Mr. Engle offered Mr. Paterno the position. Mr. Paterno, who had planned to complete his degree and attend Boston University law school, reluctantly accepted.

In Engle’s first game as head coach and Paterno’s first as an assistant, the Nittany Lions beat Georgetown, 34-14.

“I made a lot of mistakes that day, but we ended up winning the game,” Mr. Paterno said. “And I think I went in after the game and I said to Rip, `I apologize. I’m just a kid out of college.’ And I said, ‘I blew a couple things, coach.’ And he said, ‘Ah, you did all right.'”

Three years later, Mr. Paterno called his parents and told them he was going to stick with coaching.

“They were disappointed,” Paterno said. “And that was tough for me. But I just had a feeling I could do some things here with Rip. … I just felt this might just be something I could grab hold of and run with.”

Mr. Paterno’s father was upset. “I always thought you’d be president of the United States,” Angelo told his son.

Mr. Paterno, whose father died in 1955, lived with the Suhey family after moving to State College, then moved into McKee Hall in 1951. He moved in with defensive coordinator Jim O’Hora and his family in 1952 and remained there until 1962.

During his tenure as an assistant, Mr. Paterno started dating the former Suzanne Pohland of Latrobe. He married her in 1962, the same year she graduated from Penn State.

“I’ve been very, very fortunate, God almighty,” Mr. Paterno said. “If I hadn’t stayed here, I wouldn’t have met Sue. Nobody in the world has a better wife than I do.”

When Mr. Engle decided to retire after the 1965 season, he tapped Mr. Paterno to take over for him. Assistant coach Sever Torretti gracefully stepped aside to make Mr. Paterno’s transition smoother.

“He had every right to think he might be the head coach, and he resigned to take over as an associate AD [athletic director] and recruiting coordinator,” Mr. Paterno said. “I asked him about it, and he said, ‘I think you ought to be the head coach, and I didn’t want to get in a fight with you.'”

Mr. Paterno became Penn State’s 14th head coach Feb. 19, 1966, and won his debut seven months later, a 15-7 victory over Maryland.

“We went out there with about 12,000 people, and I was as nervous as could be,” Mr. Paterno said. “My coaching experience was a lot different than a lot of people, and I never, ever was with the football team. I always was upstairs, and I was all by myself.”

Mr. Paterno leaned heavily on O’Hora, the team’s defensive coordinator, for advice in his early years. “Jim O’Hora had more influence on me than anybody,” Mr. Paterno said. “I had all the answers. Jim sat me down and said, ‘Hey Joe, you’re driving the staff nuts. Let up.’ And I think that probably helped me as much as anything.”

Five of Mr. Paterno’s teams finished with unbeaten records — the 1968 and ’89 teams were 11-0 and the 1973, ’86 and ’94 squads were 12-0. His 1978 and `85 teams were undefeated in the regular season, but lost bowl games that decided the national championship.

In 1969, Mr. Paterno was offered the chance to coach the Steelers. He rejected the offer, he said, because he wanted financial security for his family. The Steelers hired Chuck Noll.

Mr. Paterno also turned down the Green Bay Packers in 1970 and a five-year, $1.3 million offer from the New England Patriots in 1972. At that time, his annual salary was $32,000. “No one deserves a million dollars just to coach a football team, Mr. Paterno said. “A lot of young coaches make the mistake of jumping from place to place. They never leave much of themselves anywhere.

“I never wanted to do that. I didn’t want to be just another coach. All I wanted to do was have an impact on Penn State.”

He did just that.

Mr. Paterno served as athletic director from 1979-82. He helped organize fund-raising campaigns, including the one that resulted in a new convocation center and basketball arena on campus in the early 1990s.

Mr. Paterno was instrumental in getting Penn State — an independent for 106 years — into the Big Ten conference. He also was the driving force behind the cancellation of the football series with rival Pitt, which will resume again in 2016 and ’17.

He developed strong friendships with some of his colleagues, such as Mr. Bowden and former Pitt coach Johnny Majors.

Mr. Paterno often spoke of tradition — the Penn State tradition. And along the way, he became forever entwined in it.

He was proud of his reputation as a hard-liner on academics and team policies.

“A kind, gentle man,” former tailback Leroy Thompson, who was drafted by the Steelers, said in 1991. “That’s off the field. On the field, a total maniac.”

Mr. Paterno was a folk hero for most of his time at Penn State, where the Creamery, the famed ice cream shop, introduced a popular flavor, Peachy Paterno. Stores also sold a life-size cardboard cutout of his likeness.

When the students staged a Paterno look-alike contest, he said: “I don’t know why anyone would want to win it.”

Mr. Paterno developed an even stronger national presence when he began doing advertising — including television spots for the Yellow Pages — and spoke on George Bush’s behalf at the 1988 Republican Convention.

Sports Illustrated named him Sportsman of the Year after his team won its second national title in 1986.

When legendary Alabama coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant, died in 1983, 28 days after coaching his last game, it had a profound affect on Mr. Paterno.

He passed Mr. Bryant — who owned a 4-0 record against him — on the all-time victory list for major college coaches Oct. 27, 2001. Mr. Paterno secured his record-breaking 324th victory when Penn State rallied from an 18-point deficit to defeat Ohio State, 29-27.

“When you [reporters] talk about retirement, I often thought about when [Bryant] left, and he didn’t have anything else to do,” Paterno said. “He wouldn’t golf or anything. I don’t either. What am I going to do if I retire?”

When Paterno’s program lost 16 of 23 games from 2003-04, Penn State fans, and a few administrators, wondered aloud if it wasn’t time for him to step down. He believed if he could keep his staff intact, the program would be fine. Mr. Paterno delivered on that promise in 2005, finishing 11-1 and third in the national polls. He always believed his players were bigger than the game.

“I think if it’s just a question of winning and losing, football is a silly game,” he said. “I really believe there is something more to a college football experience, and I think our players have enjoyed that approach and they have gotten a great sense of their capabilities now and what they can do in later life. It’s the confidence they have gained in meeting that kind of challenge.”

His legacy — as a successful coach on the field and well-regarded off it — seemed certain when the extraordinary events of 2011 changed the coach and his school forever.

His former defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, was arrested on Nov. 5 and charged with sexually assaulting 10 boys over a 15-year period. In all, Mr. Sandusky is charged with 52 criminal counts related to the case.

He has denied the charges and is out on bail while awaiting trial.

Early last year, Mr. Paterno had testified before a state grand jury investigating Mr. Sandusky, and authorities said he was not a target of the probe.

But school trustees voted unanimously Nov. 9 to oust him anyway — even though Mr. Paterno had announced that morning he would retire at the end of the season — in part because they said Mr. Paterno failed a moral responsibility to report an allegation made in 2002 against Mr. Sandusky to authorities outside the university. He informed superiors instead.

Mr. Paterno’s lawyer, Wick Sollers, on Thursday called the board’s comments self-serving and unsupported by the facts. Mr. Paterno fully reported what he knew to the people responsible for campus investigations, Mr. Sollers said.

“He did what he thought was right with the information he had at the time,” Mr. Sollers said.

Trustees have faced mounting criticism over the handling of Mr. Paterno’s firing. Some trustees have said they regret that Mr. Paterno was notified by phone rather than in person.

Alumni have vehemently voiced their discontent over the coach’s firing and have called on trustees to step down. Hundreds of alumni have attended town hall-style meetings with Penn State president Rodney Erickson throughout the Northeast, including in Pittsburgh. The sessions were arranged by the Penn State Alumni Association.

Mr. Paterno is survived by his wife, five children and 17 grandchildren. His children are all Penn State graduates, including daughters, Diana Giegerich and Mary Kathryn Hort, and sons, David, Jay (Joseph, Jr.), and George Scott.


About Died and yet ...

Fascinating people die every day, some well-known, some not so known. People's obituaries are often the only things written about their rich, varied, interesting lives. This blog celebrates the large and small among us, without whom our experiences wouldn't be as meaningful.

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