Joe Paterno, 85, dies in State College

Updated: January 23, 2012, 9:59 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Joe Paterno, the longtime Penn State coach who won more games than anyone in major college football but was fired amid a child sex abuse scandal that scarred his reputation for winning with integrity, died Sunday of lung cancer. He was 85.

His family released a statement Sunday morning to announce his death: "His loss leaves a void in our lives that will never be filled."

"He died as he lived," the statement said. "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."

The Pennsylvania hospital where Paterno died confirmed the cause of death as a spreading lung cancer.

Mount Nittany Medical Center said in a statement that Paterno died at 9:25 a.m. Sunday of "metastatic small cell carcinoma of the lung." Metastatic indicates an illness that has spread from one part of the body to an unrelated area.

The hospital said Paterno was surrounded by family members, who have requested privacy.

Paterno's son had said in November that his father had been diagnosed with a treatable form of lung cancer during a follow-up visit for a bronchial illness.

Paterno built his program on the credo "Success with Honor," and he found both. The man known as "JoePa" won 409 games and took the Nittany Lions to 37 bowl games and two national championships. More than 250 of the players he coached went on to the NFL.

"He will go down as the greatest football coach in the history of the game," Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said after his former team, the Florida Gators, beat Penn State 37-24 in the 2011 Outback Bowl.

Two police officers were stationed to block traffic on the street where Paterno's modest ranch home stands next to a local park. The officers said the family had asked there be no public gathering outside the house, still decorated with a Christmas wreath, so Paterno's relatives could grieve privately. And, indeed, the street was quiet on a cold winter day.

Paterno's sons, Scott and Jay, arrived separately at the house late Sunday morning. Jay Paterno, who served as his father's quarterbacks coach, was crying.

Scott Paterno said on Nov. 18 that his father was being treated for lung cancer. The cancer was diagnosed during a follow-up visit for a bronchial illness. A few weeks after that revelation, Paterno also broke his pelvis after a fall but did not need surgery.

Paterno had been in the hospital since Jan. 13 for observation for what his family had called minor complications from his cancer treatments. Not long before that, he conducted his only interview since losing his job, with The Washington Post. Paterno was described as frail then, speaking mostly in a whisper and wearing a wig. The second half of the two-day interview was conducted at his bedside.

"As the last 61 years have shown, Joe made an incredible impact," said the statement from the family. "That impact has been felt and appreciated by our family in the form of thousands of letters and well wishes along with countless acts of kindness from people whose lives he touched. It is evident also in the thousands of successful student athletes who have gone on to multiply that impact as they spread out across the country."

The final days of Paterno's Penn State career were easily the toughest in his 61 years with the university and 46 seasons as head football coach.

Penn State president Rodney Erickson said the university is grieving Paterno's death and plans to honor him for his contributions to the school.

In a statement released Sunday, Erickson called Paterno "a great man who made us a greater university."

Erickson said Paterno's "dedication to ensuring his players were successful both on the field and in life is legendary."

It was because Paterno was a such a sainted figure -- more memorable than any of his players and one of the best-known coaches in all of sports -- that his downfall was so startling. During one breathtaking week in early November, Paterno was engulfed by a scandal and forced from his job, because he failed to go to the police in 2002 when told a young boy was molested inside the football complex.

"I didn't know which way to go ... and rather than get in there and make a mistake," he said in the Post interview.

[+] EnlargeJoe Paterno
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarJoe Paterno won a Division I-record 409 games and two national titles in 46 seasons at Penn State.

Jerry Sandusky, the former defensive coordinator expected to succeed Paterno before retiring in 1999, was charged with sexually assaulting 10 boys over 15 years. Two university officials stepped down after they were charged with perjury following a grand jury investigation of Sandusky. But attention quickly focused on an alleged rape that took place in a shower in the football building, witnessed by Mike McQueary, a graduate assistant at the time.

"This is a sad day!" Sandusky said in a statement released by his attorney. "Our family, Dottie and I would like to convey our deepest sympathy to Sue and her family. Nobody did more for the academic reputation of Penn State than Joe Paterno. He maintained a high standard in a very difficult profession.

"Joe preached toughness, hard work and clean competition," Sandusky's statement said. "Most importantly, he had the courage to practice what he preached. Nobody will be able to take away the memories we all shared of a great man, his family, and all the wonderful people who were a part of his life."

McQueary testified that he had seen Sandusky attacking the child and that he had told Paterno, who waited a day before alerting school authorities. Police were never called and the state's top cop later said Paterno failed to execute his moral responsibility by not contacting police.

"You know, (McQueary) didn't want to get specific," Paterno said in the Post interview. "And to be frank with you I don't know that it would have done any good, because I never heard of, of, rape and a man. So I just did what I thought was best. I talked to people that I thought would be, if there was a problem, that would be following up on it."

Paterno's successor, Bill O'Brien, who will be leaving his job with the New England Patriots as offensive coordinator, said in a statement that the Penn State football program had lost a "great man, coach, mentor and, in many cases, a father figure."

"There are no words to express my respect for him as a man and as a coach," O'Brien said in the statement. "To be following in his footsteps at Penn State is an honor. Our families, our football program, our university and all of college football have suffered a great loss, and we will be eternally grateful for Coach Paterno's immeasurable contributions."

The Patriots said O'Brien did not address Paterno's death with the team on Sunday, when New England won 23-20 to advance to the Super Bowl. That means Penn State will have to wait another two weeks before O'Brien takes over the job full-time.

Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush also released a statement.

"I was deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Joe Paterno," Bush said. "He was an outstanding American who was respected not only on the field of play but in life generally -- and he was, without a doubt, a true icon in the world of sports. I was proud that he was a friend of mine. Barbara and I send our condolences to his devoted wife Suzanne and to his wonderful family."

On the morning of Nov. 9, Paterno said he would retire following the 2011 season. He also said he was "absolutely devastated" by the abuse case.

"This is a tragedy," the coach said. "It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more."

But the university trustees faced a crisis, and in an emergency meeting that night, they fired Paterno, effective immediately. Graham Spanier, one of the longest-serving university presidents in the nation, also was dismissed.

According to Lanny Davis, an attorney retained by the trustees as an adviser, board vice chairman John Surma regretted having to tell Paterno the decision over the phone. Surma declined to comment Sunday.

The university handed the football team to one of Paterno's assistants, Tom Bradley, who said Paterno "will go down in history as one of the greatest men, who maybe most of you know as a great football coach."

Thick, smoky-lens glasses, rolled up khakis, jet-black sneakers, blue windbreaker -- Paterno was easy to spot on the sidelines. His teams were just as easy to spot on the field; their white helmets and classic blue and white uniforms had the same old-school look as the coach.

Paterno believed success was not measured entirely on the field. From his idealistic early days, he had implemented what he called a "grand experiment" -- to graduate more players while maintaining success on the field.

He was a frequent speaker on ethics in sports, a conscience for a world often infiltrated by scandal and shady characters.

His teams consistently ranked among the best in the Big Ten for graduating players. As of 2011, it had 49 academic All-Americans, the third-highest among schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision. All but two played under Paterno.

The Nittany Lions look to continue the tradition established by Paterno on the field as the program scored its biggest recruiting haul under its new coach on the same day as Paterno's passing.

Penn State landed oral commitments from Da'Quan Davis of Towson (Md.) Calvert Hall, Jonathan Warner of Camas, Wash., Eugene Lewis of Plymouth (Pa.) Wyoming Valley and Akeel Lynch of Athol Springs (N.Y.) St. Francis.

ESPN ranks Lewis as a four-star prospect and the No. 7 player in Pennsylvania. Lynch grew up Penn State fan and said hopes to help build upon what Paterno constructed at Penn State.

"Joe Paterno built a great dynasty," he said. "I want to add on to it."

"He teaches us about really just growing up and being a man," former linebacker Paul Posluszny, now with the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars, once said. "Besides the football, he's preparing us to be good men in life."

Calls for his retirement reached a crescendo in 2004. The next year, Penn State went 11-1 and won the Big Ten. In the Orange Bowl, the Nittany Lions beat Bobby Bowden's Seminoles.

Paterno certainly had detractors, as well. One former Penn State professor called his high-minded words on academics a farce. He was criticized for making broad critiques about the wrongs in college football without providing specifics. A former administrator said his players often got special treatment compared to non-athletes. His coaching style often was considered too conservative. Some thought he held on to his job too long. There was a push to move him out in 2004 but it failed.

But the critics were in the minority, and his program was never cited for major NCAA violations. However, the child sexual abuse scandal prompted separate investigations by the U.S. Department of Education and the NCAA into the school's handling.

At the highly anticipated wrestling match Sunday between Iowa and Penn State at Rec Hall on Penn State's campus, the gym announcer asked fans to observe a moment of silence, and then the capacity crowd of more than 6,500 gave a 30-second standing ovation while an image of Paterno flashed on two video boards.

The screen flashed the words "Joseph Vincent Paterno. 1926-2012," just below a picture of a smiling Paterno, wearing a blue tie and blue sweater vest with arms crossed across his chest.

At a women's basketball game Sunday, Penn State players wore a black strap on their shoulders in memory of Paterno.

A moment of silence was also observed before the Nittany Lions men's basketball team's 73-54 loss at Indiana.

Paterno played quarterback and cornerback for Brown University and set a defensive record with 14 career interceptions, a distinction he boasted about to his teams all the way into his 80s. He graduated in 1950 with plans to go to law school. He said his father hoped he would someday be president.

When he was 23, a former coach at Brown was moving to Penn State to become the head coach and persuaded Paterno to come with him as an assistant.

"I had no intention to coach when I got out of Brown," Paterno said in 2007 at Beaver Stadium in an interview before being inducted into the Hall of Fame. "Come to this hick town? From Brooklyn?"

In 1963, he was offered a job by the late Al Davis -- $18,000, triple his salary at Penn State, plus a car to become general manager and coach of the AFL's Oakland Raiders. He said no. Rip Engle retired as Penn State head coach three years later, and Paterno took over.

At the time, the Lions were considered "Eastern football" -- inferior -- and Paterno courted newspaper coverage to raise the team's profile. In 1967, PSU began a 30-0-1 streak.

But Penn State couldn't get to the top of the polls. The Lions finished second in 1968 and 1969 despite perfect records. They went 12-0 in 1973 and finished fifth. Texas edged them in 1969 after President Richard Nixon, impressed with the Longhorns' bowl performance, declared them No. 1.

Bowden You can't ignore the great years he had at Penn State and the great things he did for Penn State. That university is known for Joe Paterno and Sue. It's just a great tragedy.

-- Bobby Bowden

"I'd like to know," Paterno said later, "how could the president know so little about Watergate in 1973, and so much about college football in 1969?"

A national title finally came in 1982, in a 27-23 win over Georgia at the Sugar Bowl. Penn State won another in 1986 after the Lions picked off Vinny Testaverde five times and beat Miami 14-10 in the Fiesta Bowl.

They have made several title runs since then, including a 2005 run to the Orange Bowl and an 11-1 campaign in 2008 that earned them a berth in the Rose Bowl, where they lost 37-23 to Southern California.

In his later years, physical ailments wore the old coach down. Paterno was run over on the sideline during a game at Wisconsin in November 2006 and underwent knee surgery. He hurt his hip in 2008 demonstrating an onside kick.

An intestinal illness and a bad reaction to antibiotics prescribed for dental work slowed him for most of the 2010 season. Paterno began scaling back his speaking engagements that year, ending his summer caravan of speeches to alumni across the state.

Then a receiver bowled over Paterno at practice in August, sending him to the hospital with shoulder and pelvis injuries and consigning him to coach much of the season from the press box.

"The fact that we've won a lot of games is that the good Lord kept me healthy, not because I'm better than anybody else," Paterno said two days before he won his 409th game and passed Eddie Robinson of Grambling State for the most in Division I. "It's because I've been around a lot longer than anybody else."

Paterno could be conservative on the field, especially in big games, relying on the tried-and-true formula of defense, the running game and field position.

"They've been playing great defense for 45 years," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said in November.

Paterno and his wife, Sue, raised five children in State College. Anybody could telephone him at his modest ranch home -- the same one he appeared in front of on the night he was fired -- by looking up "Paterno, Joseph V." in the phone book.

He walked to home games and was greeted and wished good luck by fans on the street. Former players paraded through his living room for the chance to say hello. But for the most part, he stayed out of the spotlight.

Paterno did have a knack for joke. He referred to Twitter, the social media, as "Twittle-do, Twittle-dee."

He also could be abrasive and stubborn, and had his share of run-ins with his bosses or administrators. And as his legend grew, so did the attention to his on-field decisions, and the questions about when he would retire.

Calls for his retirement reached a crescendo in 2004. The next year, Penn State went 11-1 and won the Big Ten. In the Orange Bowl, PSU beat Florida State, whose coach, Bobby Bowden, left the Seminoles after the 2009 season after 34 years and 389 wins.

"I thought I could outlast him," Bowden said. "That was kind of my goal in my last years of coaching, but my record wouldn't allow it. I enjoyed [the battle with Paterno] and kind of fessed up to it. Joe would always say, 'Oh, I'm not interested in it.' At one time, I was ahead of him. He was the best."

Bowden said he hopes Paterno will be remembered as a great leader and coach, and not for his role in the Sandusky scandal.

"You can't ignore the great years he had at Penn State and the great things he did for Penn State," Bowden said. "That university is known for Joe Paterno and Sue. It's just a great tragedy."

Information from The Associated Press and ESPN.com's Mark Schlabach was used in this report.

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