Commentary

Joe Paterno leaves lasting legacy

Originally Published: January 22, 2012
By Ivan Maisel and Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

Joe Paterno, NCAA Division I's all-time winningest coach who won two national championships and 409 games in 46 seasons at Penn State, died of complications from lung cancer Sunday at Mount Nittany Medical Center in State College, Pa., at the age of 85.

[+] EnlargeJoe Paterno
John McDonnell/The Washington PostThe fallout from the Sandusky scandal took a toll on Joe Paterno.

Penn State officials said Paterno experienced further complications from treatment for lung cancer over the last week, and his family summoned close friends and former staff members to the hospital on Saturday. Paterno revealed his cancer diagnosis on Nov. 18, just nine days after he was fired in the fallout of former assistant Jerry Sandusky's alleged sexual abuse of children. He also suffered a broken pelvis in a fall at his home on Dec. 11 and was confined to a wheelchair in his last weeks.

Paterno devoted his entire career to a belief in the power of intercollegiate athletics, but only when coupled with the power of academics. His will and his enthusiasm provided a public face for the transformation of Penn State from a regional agricultural school to one of the most important public universities in the country.

Paterno's "Grand Experiment" was his blueprint for how intercollegiate sports should work, a harmonious balance of academics and athletics, which would ensure that the players who enrolled at Penn State and played for him would be better men when they left. Paterno was never accused of breaking NCAA rules and his players always graduated at exceptionally high rates, fostering a belief that the Nittany Lions always did things the right way. Paterno and his family donated more than $4 million to Penn State, helping fund scholarships, faculty positions and construction of a library that bears his name.

Now, Penn State and its alumni and fans -- and the rest of the sporting world, for that matter -- are left to ponder Paterno's legacy, which was otherwise exemplary until the worst scandal in intercollegiate sports history left an indelible stain on his career and the university's reputation.

Although attorney general Linda Kelly pronounced that Paterno fulfilled his legal responsibilities, there remains a gap between that duty and the larger one, to save children who are in harm's way. Paterno recognized his failing in his statement of resignation.

"It is one of the great sorrows of my life," Paterno said. "I wish I had done more."

In 46 seasons at Penn State, Paterno won 409 games, more than any other coach in the history of college football, and two national championships, in 1982 and 1986. Given that he coached five teams to undefeated, untied seasons, it's no wonder that he became an early proponent of a college football playoff. Paterno the philosopher appreciated the irony in finishing No. 1 with an 11-1 record in 1982 after not winning it all with spotless records in 1968, 1969, 1973 and 1994.

The rise of Penn State as an athletic and academic power would be the biggest change that occurred during Paterno's tenure at Penn State, which is saying a lot. Think of everything else that happened in college football from the time that Paterno arrived at Penn State as an assistant coach in 1950. The sport went from one platoon to two, from lily-white to integrated, from six bowl games to 35.

[+] EnlargeJoe Paterno
AP Photo/Al BehrmanPaterno coached thousands of players, including 78 All-Americans, in his six decades at Penn State.

Through it all, there was JoePa, with his trademark thick glasses, rolled-up pants cuffs (to save on dry cleaning), gleaming white socks and that probing, needling, Brooklyn whine of a voice.

Paterno coached 78 first-team All-Americans, including winners of virtually every major individual award. At the two positions for which his Nittany Lions became most famous, running back John Cappelletti won the 1973 Heisman Trophy and linebackers LaVar Arrington and Paul Posluszny won the Butkus Award in 1999 and 2005, respectively.

Paterno produced more than 350 players who went on to play in the NFL, 33 of whom were selected in the first round of the draft. He also took pride in the 16 Penn State players named Scholar-Athletes by the National Football Foundation.

In fact, from the time Paterno became head coach in 1966, he demanded that academic success be as important to his players as their success on the football field. Many coaches of Paterno's era paid little more than lip service to education. They put football first because they understood that, no matter the language of their contracts, without winning games the grade-point averages of their players meant little.

Paterno believed that academics and athletics could be mixed without emitting toxic fumes.

Over the next four-plus decades, Paterno and his university -- and the two became interchangeable in the minds of the nation -- made the Grand Experiment a success. As late as 2007, the NCAA reported that Penn State football players graduated at a rate of 74 percent, 19 points above the national average.

When Paterno took over as head coach, fans and writers outside of the Northeast still confused Penn State with Penn, the Ivy League school in Philadelphia. The Nittany Lions played a regional schedule dominated by rivals Pittsburgh, Syracuse and West Virginia.

By 1989, the Big Ten Conference had invited Penn State to become the league's 11th member, in part a commentary on the prestige that Paterno had brought the athletic program. The invitation also verified the academic improvement that the university made. The Big Ten, which counts among its members prestigious public universities such as Michigan and Wisconsin, does not issue invitations to schools just because they win football games.

Paterno had a hand in the rise of Penn State's academic standing as well. Not only did he become a tireless fundraiser for Penn State, he put his wallet where his mouth was. The university named a new library for Joe and Sue Paterno in 2000. The couple also supported an interfaith spiritual center on campus, and endowed scholarships and faculty chairs as well.

His love of learning stemmed from childhood. He took nothing for granted, whether in a game plan or in the game itself. As the sport grew in popularity and grandiosity, he wondered aloud whether college football would spiral out of control.

"I've got very serious doubts whether big-time football is worth it," he told author Ken Denlinger in his 1994 book, "For the Glory." "It was a lot better when we didn't have weight rooms, and the other stuff, when the Mike Reids would walk away when the season was over and you might not see 'em for weeks. Now we've got winter workouts, and you've got to do it to compete."

Reid, a defensive tackle who won the 1969 Outland Trophy, became a successful musical producer and songwriter in Nashville. It is hard to imagine that he would have blossomed that way had he played for any other coach.


Joseph Vincent Paterno came into the streets of his native Brooklyn on Dec. 21, 1926, and is the oldest of four children of Angelo and Florence Paterno. His father, who attended night school to earn a law degree, instilled in Joe a love of education. Angelo Paterno took an extra job to pay the tuition for Joe and his younger brother George to be taught by the Jesuits at Brooklyn Prep.

From Florence Paterno came the drive to succeed that pushed Joe all his life.

"If she couldn't be at the head of the pack, she wouldn't go," Paterno wrote of his mother in his 1989 autobiography, "Paterno: By the Book," with Bernard Asbell. "So, as the first son in anything I did I had to be at the top."

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AP Photo/Paul VathisJoe Paterno posed in 1966 with his 1-year-old daughter Mary Kathryn on his lap and his wife Suzanne, with 2-year-old daughter Diana Lynne, at their home in University Park, Pa.

There is something else at work in that desire. Paterno is the classic American of the 20th century, an outsider who outworks the insiders, a have-not who broke through the societal limitations imposed by the haves, men who planted their family trees in American soil only a generation or two earlier.

Paterno made his name on the football field. As a senior quarterback at Brown, Paterno led the Bears to an 8-1 record. As a two-player, he also intercepted six passes on defense. His career total of 14 picks set a record at the school that he shares to this day.

That Paterno even set foot on the Brown campus amounted to something of an upset. The parish priests in Brooklyn admonished parents who didn't send their children to Catholic universities. But Paterno had been offered a scholarship to Brown and had been impressed by the head coach, Charles "Rip" Engle. Their relationship would change not only the lives of the two men, but the course of the sport.

In the spring of 1950, Penn State hired Engle away from Brown. He intercepted his quarterback, en route to Boston University Law School, and brought Paterno with him as an assistant coach.

Penn State, by Paterno's own description, was a "cow college." He was a city boy. It took him a few years to fall in love with State College.

As a young assistant coach at Penn State, Paterno attended a coaching clinic in St. Louis, where he shared an elevator with Bud Wilkinson of Oklahoma, Frank Leahy of Notre Dame, and Wally Butts of Georgia. The thrill stayed with Paterno late in life. Those three coaching legends, destined for the College Football Hall of Fame, combined to win 392 games. Paterno, who joined them in the Hall in 2006, passed that total in 2009, when his Nittany Lions went 11-2.

Paterno rose to become Engle's top assistant but not without stepping on toes on his way up. He challenged every coach's assumptions, questioning decisions made by his fellow assistants and by Engle himself. In the 1998 biography "No Ordinary Joe," author Michael O'Brien wrote, "He had an opinion on everything -- politics, football, religion, Shakespeare, music.… 'He was a brazen young man,' said fellow assistant Frank Patrick, whom Joe initially offended. 'He knew it all.'"

What came off as arrogance stemmed in part from immaturity but also from his impatience to succeed. Paterno never lost the humility and respect for others drilled into children of the pre-war era. He came from the Chip Hilton era of athletics. Bragging and preening might be the most recognizable traits of athletes of the modern day, traits for which Paterno had no use. The Depression baby who became a millionaire bought his suits at an outlet store. He lived in a small house near campus  which he bought for $9,000 in 1966 -- for almost his entire career at Penn State. His address and phone number are still listed in the State College phone book.

That humility extended to his players' uniforms: simple dark blue jerseys with white pants and white helmets. They became a trademark of Penn State, so much so that when the university agreed to put the Nike swoosh on the jersey front in 1995, it set off a debate that lasted for weeks.

It all spoke to Paterno's single-minded focus. As a young coach, he spent little time on anything or anyone that wouldn't help him win a football game. Not until 1961, at the age of 34, did his coaching head get turned by a woman.

Suzanne Pohland of Latrobe, Pa., dated one of Paterno's players. Paterno asked her to keep an eye on the player's academics. The player transferred; the relationship between Joe and Sue blossomed. They married on May 12, 1962. On their way to a five-day honeymoon in Virginia Beach, Joe stopped off to see a recruit. Sue waited in the car.

Joe and Sue Paterno would have five children -- Diana, Mary Kathryn, David, Jay (an assistant on his father's staff from 1995 until this past season) and Scott -- and 17 grandchildren.

[+] EnlargeJoe and Jay Paterno
AP Photo/Carolyn KasterPaterno's son Jay was a former player and longtime assistant.

After the 1964 season, Yale tried to hire Paterno away as head coach. Paterno decided to remain at Penn State, and the university rewarded him a year later when Engle retired. Paterno accepted the job with a handshake agreement for a $20,000 salary.

The Nittany Lions went 5-5 in 1966, and Paterno responded not only by designing a new defense, but by shifting his best talent to that side of the ball. In the third game of the 1967 season, Penn State almost upset No. 3 UCLA, losing 17-15. The Nittany Lions fell to 1-2. However, they didn't lose another game until 1970.

Penn State won the last seven games of the 1967 season, tied Florida State, 17-17, in the Gator Bowl, and went 11-0 in each of the next two seasons. In 1968, Penn State finished second to undefeated, untied Ohio State. In 1969, the Nittany Lions finished the regular season ranked third behind No. 1 Texas and No. 2 Arkansas, who played on Dec. 6. President Richard Nixon not only attended the game, but after the Longhorns won, 15-14, with a dramatic late-game touchdown, he declared them national champion.


In 1973, the Nittany Lions went 12-0 but finished only fifth in the nation. Disgusted with the polls, Paterno declared that "the Paterno Poll" had named Penn State No. 1 and had national championship rings made for his players.

Paterno seriously considered leaving Penn State only once. In January 1973, after seven seasons at Penn State, Paterno agreed to become coach, general manager and part owner (5 percent) of the Boston Patriots. Not just the name of the Patriots has changed; so have the economics. The four-year contract included $1.4 million in salary and benefits.

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AP Photo/Bill FeigPaterno won his first national championship against Georgia in the 1983 Sugar Bowl.

For a guy raising five children on a salary of $35,000, how could Paterno say no?

After a sleepless night, that's how. At 5:30 a.m. on the day that he would fly to Boston to make it official, Paterno said to his wife, "You went to bed with a millionaire but you woke up with me. I'm not going."

Finally, in 1978, Paterno's team got the chance to play for the national championship. Penn State, ranked No. 1 in the nation with an 11-0 record, met No. 2 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. The Crimson Tide, 10-1, led 14-7 before the Nittany Lions recovered a fumbled punt at the Alabama 19 late in the game.

Penn State moved to the Alabama 1 with two downs to score. Paterno called for a burst into the line. As the officials unpiled the players and marked the ball short of the goal line, Alabama defensive end Marty Lyons, standing next to Penn State quarterback Chuck Fusina, said, "You'd better pass."

Paterno sent fullback Mike Guman into the middle of the line again. Guman leapt, and Alabama linebacker Barry Krauss met him in midair. The collision popped the rivets on Krauss' helmet but Guman did not cross the goal line. Penn State fell short of the national championship again.

Paterno wrote in his autobiography that his instinct had been to pass but he didn't trust it.

"I beat up on myself not only immediately but for months afterward, halfway into the next season," Paterno said. "It hammered at my ego. When I stood toe to toe with Bear Bryant, he outcoached me."

It would be no coincidence that the 1979 team, fifth in the preseason poll, finished 8-4 and tied for 20th.

Paterno, as a young head coach, spoke to the media with a frankness not heard from most coaches. He held cocktail parties the night before home games where he spoke freely on the condition that his comments be off the record. The media, happy for the access (and, in all likelihood, the cocktails) agreed.

In 1979, a writer at one Friday night gathering, perhaps unfamiliar with the ground rules, reported that Paterno said he would not leave college football because he didn't want "to turn over the game to the Switzers and the Sherrills." That would be Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer and the coach of Penn State's archrival at the time, Pittsburgh's Jackie Sherrill.

Most readers interpreted the remark as Paterno calling them cheaters. Paterno denied that and said he meant their attitude that winning trumped all else. Paterno's program wasn't perfect. An ESPN investigation in 2008 found that 46 Penn State football players faced 163 criminal charges from 2002 to 2007, according to an analysis of Pennsylvania court records and reports. Twenty-seven players were convicted or pleaded guilty to a combined 45 charges.

"We tried to get kids that were good, solid kids," Paterno said at the time. "We may have made a mistake or two, but there was no deliberate attempt."

Paterno apologized to Switzer, and in 1990 wrote the foreword to Switzer's best-selling autobiography, "Bootlegger's Boy." He didn't apologize to Sherrill, for whom he had little respect.

After Sherrill retired from coaching in 2003, however, the two reconciled. Sherrill once came to State College as part of a radio team broadcasting a game. After the game, he went to Paterno's home, where the coach's extended family and friends would gather. As he and his wife sat in the basement, watching a football game, one of Jay Paterno's children climbed into Sherrill's lap.

When Joe heard, he laughed and said, "This I gotta see." He climbed down the stairs and peeked.

Sherrill would be one of the few "media" members who spent time with the older Paterno. In the last decade of his career, he rarely gave interviews beyond the regular news conferences.


By 1982, Paterno and Penn State rebounded, going 10-1, (the only loss, again, came at the hands of Bryant and Alabama. Paterno finished 0-4 in his career against the Bear). In the Sugar Bowl, Penn State upset No. 1, unbeaten Georgia, 27-23, and claimed Paterno's first national championship. Herschel Walker, the Bulldogs' Heisman-winning tailback, gained only 103 yards, his longest gain 12 yards.

In 1985, the Nittany Lions went undefeated again, only to lose the national championship in the Orange Bowl to Oklahoma, 25-10. The loss girded Penn State for the season to come, the season that would cement Paterno's place in the sport forever.

In the 100th season of football at Penn State, the Nittany Lions once again sailed through the regular season undefeated. They reached No. 2 in the rankings and agreed to play No. 1 Miami for the national championship. In an era when conferences sent their champions to specific bowls, No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchups rarely happened in bowls. However, since neither Penn State nor Miami belonged to a conference, they accepted invitations to the Fiesta Bowl.

[+] EnlargeJoe Paterno
AP Photo/Jim GerberichMiami had swagger, but it was no match for Paterno's Nittany Lions.

Miami was everything that Penn State was not. The Hurricanes wore their egos on their sleeves. They beat teams with their speed and quickness, and they bragged about it, on the field and off. Miami featured quarterback Vinny Testaverde, the Heisman winner, and two All-Americans on defense, safety Bennie Blades and tackle Jerome Brown.

NBC moved the telecast to Jan. 2 to capitalize on the national interest. In the days leading up to the game, Sports Illustrated named Paterno its Sportsman of the Year. The game embodied the good vs. evil of the Saturday serials that were a staple of the movies in Paterno's youth.

The Miami players arrived at the Phoenix airport wearing military fatigues. A few days before the game, the Hurricanes walked out of a steak fry held for both teams. At the coin toss, the Miami captains declined to shake hands with the Penn State captains. After all the histrionics, though, the game still had to be played.

Penn State focused on making Testaverde and his receivers beat them. Sandusky, a senior on Paterno's first Nittany Lions team in 1966, mixed up pass coverages and made sure the Nittany Lions hit the Hurricanes' receivers hard. Testaverde threw 50 passes that night. His receivers dropped seven of them. Penn State defenders intercepted five, the last on a fourth-and-8 from the Penn State 13 with 18 seconds to play. Penn State won, 14-10, and Paterno had won his second national championship.

Paterno turned 60 a few days before the Nittany Lions won that second national championship. In the late 1980s, he began to face talk of his age and his imminent retirement on the recruiting trail. He faced it for the next quarter-century.


That championship, which came at the midway point of his long career, became a milepost of sorts. From 1966-86, Paterno had a record of 199-44-2 (.816). Since 1987, the next 25 seasons, Paterno went 210-92-1 (.695). The discrepancy reflected the Nittany Lions' entry into the Big Ten in 1993. In 19 years in the league, Penn State has won three championships. The Nittany Lions have had two losing seasons, and have spent most of remaining time in the middle of the pack.

[+] EnlargeJoe Paterno
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesPaterno's health kept him off the sideline at times, but never far from his team.

The first Big Ten championship, 1994, came in a season in which Penn State went 12-0 and again failed to finish No. 1. The Nittany Lions fell short in the final poll to Nebraska.

"We should have two or three more national championships," Paterno said in 2004. "In '68, it was debatable. In '69 and '94, we should have been at least co-champions. In '94, we were as good as anybody."

In 1999, Sandusky, an assistant to Paterno for more than three decades and once considered his heir apparent, retired to work full-time for The Second Mile, a foundation he began to help at-risk children. The university granted him tenure, and Sandusky retained use of the football facilities on campus.

From 2000 to 2004, Paterno enjoyed only one winning season. He admitted that he had done a poor job of delegating responsibility.

"One of the problems that you get," Paterno said in 2004, "is that the longer you're in it, the more friends and kids, and people who count on you [ask for help], and your time away from coaching gets more and more significant. People have funerals, players have kids who need a hand, the whole band of people you're involved with stretches. Every year it stretches a little bit more. That's when you start to get swamped. … You keep thinking, 'It won't hurt here, it won't hurt there.' You wake up one morning and you have a crappy organization."

In 2005, Penn State came within one play of reaching the national championship game. A last-play loss to Michigan spoiled an otherwise spotless regular season, and the Nittany Lions had to settle for playing Florida State in the Orange Bowl. The game matched Paterno with his good friend, Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden. At kickoff, they ranked 1-2 all time in victories among major college football coaches. Bowden had 359 victories and Paterno had 353.

Penn State won the game, 26-23, in triple overtime, capping an 11-1 season that hushed those who believed that the game had passed Paterno by. In May 2004, shortly after he signed a five-year contract, Paterno was asked what he told recruits about his future. He said that he allowed for the possibility that he might get sick.

"I also just happen to mention," Paterno said, "that all these years when everybody was telling kids they're not going to Penn State because Paterno won't be there, about 700 of those guys [coaches] are gone. I just happen to mention that."

To date, the number of Division I-A coaches who had been fired since Penn State hired Paterno in 1966 has neared 900.

Paterno led the Nittany Lions to another Big Ten championship and a berth in the Rose Bowl in 2008, where Penn State fell to USC, 38-24. Paterno amassed a record of 24-11-1 (.681) in bowl games.

Over the next three seasons Paterno closed the margin between him and Bowden and then surpassed him. He endured despite a deteriorating hip that required replacement the day after the 2008 regular season ended. He kept going despite twice getting knocked down on the sideline, most recently in this preseason. But he dismissed the notion that chasing Bowden for the record compelled him to keep coaching.

"I don't care about the record," Paterno said in the spring of 2008. "I really don't. Honestly. You know when they bury you, you going to look up at your stone and say, 'Hey, I got a record?' You're dead. You're gone. I think there are other things that are more important. I think Bobby would say the same thing."


Paterno's wisdom struck home in the wake of the shocking revelation in November that Sandusky, his former right-hand man, had been charged with 40 crimes pertaining to felony child sexual abuse. The grand jury focused on one incident in 2002, in which a football graduate assistant walked in on Sandusky assaulting a young boy in the showers of the football building.

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AP Photo/Pat LittlePaterno ended his career mired in the controversy surrounding the allegations against former coach Jerry Sandusky.

The graduate assistant, Mike McQueary, told Paterno what he had seen. What exactly McQueary told Paterno is subject to the memory of an elderly man. Paterno insisted to the grand jury that he was told only of "inappropriate behavior" and passed the case to the campus officials who should deal with it.

Penn State's Board of Regents didn't believe Paterno had done enough and relieved him of his coaching duties on Nov. 9. University president Graham Spanier and athletics director Tim Curley also were fired. Tom Bradley, Paterno's longtime defensive coordinator, coached the Nittany Lions in their last four games this past season, finishing with a 9-4 record. New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien was hired earlier this month as Paterno's replacement.

"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. "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 also told Jenkins that he later realized people probably expected more from him as the face of Penn State.

"Whether it's fair I don't know, but they do it," Paterno said. "You would think I ran the show here."

The fallout from the scandal was severe. Shortly before the Big Ten staged its first football championship game in Indianapolis on Dec. 3, commissioner Jim Delany announced Paterno's name had been removed from the championship trophy. The Maxwell Football Club of Philadelphia discontinued its Joseph V. Paterno Award for coaches who made a positive impact in the community, and a nomination for Paterno to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom was withdrawn.

In July 2012, Paterno's role in the scandal was detailed in the investigative report by Louis Freeh, the former director of the FBI. Freeh's report concluded that Paterno and other officials "failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized."

The report went on to outline Paterno's knowledge of accusations against Sandusky dating back to 1998, something Paterno denied during his grand jury testimony.

While the Sandusky scandal left an indelible stain on his career and legacy at Penn State, Paterno insisted that he shouldn't have been the focus in the fallout. Instead, people should have been concerned about Sandusky's alleged victims.

"You know, I'm not as concerned about me," Paterno told the Washington Post's Sally Jenkins in January 2012. "What's happened to me has been great. I got five great kids. Seventeen great grandchildren. I've had a wonderful experience here at Penn State. I don't want to walk away from this thing bitter. I want to be helpful."

How long the close of his career will overshadow the preceding six decades is a question only time will answer. Paterno spoke correctly about one issue. His imprint on the game, on his players and on his university will last long after his victory total is surpassed. Records are made to be broken. Legacies are not so fragile.

Ironically, when Penn State officials commissioned a statue of Paterno to be placed outside Beaver Stadium in 2001, the following quote was inscribed on the middle wall of the tribute: "They ask me what I'd like written about me when I'm gone. I hope they write I made Penn State a better place, not just that I was a good football coach."

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

Mark Schlabach | email

College Football and Basketball

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