Joe Paterno, the former Penn State football coach who was among the most admired figures in the annals of collegiate sports but whose reputation was shattered in the wake of a child abuse scandal involving one of his longtime assistants, died Jan. 22. He was 85.
The cause was lung cancer, according to a statement released by Mount Nittany Medical Center, the hospital in State College, Pa., where Mr. Paterno died.
“He died as he lived,” Mr. Paterno’s family said in a statement. “He fought hard until the end, stayed positive, thought only of others and constantly reminded everyone of how blessed his life had been.”
News of Mr. Paterno’s death Sunday morning touched off an outpouring of grief and admiration on the Penn State campus in State College. Hundreds flocked to a statue of Mr. Paterno at the school’s Beaver Stadium. The base of the statue was decorated with scores of candles, flowers, T-shirts, and blue and white pom-poms. A moment of silence was observed at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Ind., before Penn State’s basketball team played Indiana University.
The specter of Mr. Paterno’s failing health had loomed over the campus throughout the weekend. Inaccurate reports of his death began surfacing Saturday night, fueled by an incorrect report posted on a school student Web site, Onward State. That report went viral, spread by social media and picked up by a number of national news organizations, which later issued corrections.
Mr. Paterno’s ascent, followed by his sudden firing at age 84, formed one of the most tragic narratives in modern athletic history and constitutes something of a conflicted legacy. He was the most successful head coach in the history of major college football, but the circumstances of his dismissal led to a stain both on the football program and the man who ran it for so long.
Affectionately known as “JoePa,” Mr. Paterno began his 46-season tenure as Penn State’s head coach in 1966 after having served as assistant coach for 16 years. His teams won a record 409 games over that span with five undefeated and untied seasons and two national championships. He was the all-time winningest coach in major college football history. Moreover, his players and his team had one of the highest graduation rates in the country among athletes.
Mr. Paterno was shaken to the core last fall when a grand jury report alleged that his former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, had sexually assaulted underage boys.
Sandusky, Mr. Paterno’s longtime defensive coordinator and trusted lieutenant until he retired in 1999, was charged with assaulting eight boys over the course of 15 years, some of them while he was an assistant coach. Following the release of that report, other alleged victims also began to come forward. Sandusky had made contact with the boys through The Second Mile, a charity he founded to help troubled youngsters.
The Sandusky case was not the first off-the-field issue Mr. Paterno’s program had faced in recent years. According to an ESPN report in 2008, between 2002 and 2008, 46 Penn State players had been charged with a total of 163 crimes. In March 2011, Sports Illustrated published arrest numbers for all the schools it listed in its preseason Top 25 teams in the country. Penn State tied for fourth, with 16 players on the 2010 roster who had been charged with a crime.
During the Sandusky investigation, Mr. Paterno testified to the grand jury that Mike McQueary, a graduate assistant coach, said he had witnessed an assault by Sandusky on a youngster in the Penn State locker room.
Mr. Paterno said he passed the information on to his supervisors but did not notify law enforcement authorities about the incident. Mr. Paterno was never charged with a crime but was fired Nov. 9, 2011, by the school’s board of trustees, which included five former Penn State football players. Athletic director Tim Curley and school president Graham Spanier were also dismissed.
Mr. Paterno, McQueary and other Penn State officials were all severely criticized for not reporting the incident to the police.
“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’s Sally Jenkins earlier this month when discussing the Sandusky scandal. “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.”
Still, the day his dismissal was announced, Penn State students marched in the streets in support of their beloved coach, and police were called in when the demonstration turned into what Sports Illustrated described as “a low-grade riot.” A week after the firing, Mr. Paterno’s family announced that he was being treated for lung cancer.