Joe Paterno, the winningest coach in major college football history for the Penn State Nittany Lions, died Sunday. He was 85. “He died as he lived,” his 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. 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 iconic coach’s legacy was tainted by the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal that rocked the university and the college football world in November. Paterno and school President Graham Spanier were fired in the wake of the scandal.
Paterno had a string of medical complications since his release from Penn State. His son, Scott Paterno, announced Nov. 18 that his father was being treated for lung cancer. A few weeks after, Paterno broke his pelvis after a fall but did not require surgery.
He had been in the hospital since Jan. 13 for observation for what his family had called minor complications from his cancer treatments.
“It hits home,” Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill said in a statement released Sunday afternoon. “He coached for 60 years with more than 100 players per year. Think about how many lives he touched, how many good things he has done.
“From my family to the Paterno family, our prayers go out to them. It’s a sad day for football but a good day for the man upstairs.”
Icon of the old school, the man in the thick-rimmed glasses known as “Joe Pa” won 409 games and took his Nittany Lions to 37 bowl games and two national championships — all donning the classic blue and white uniforms that lacked player names, decorations or logos.
The five-time national coach of the year walked the sidelines for 46 seasons. Calls for retirement only peaked in 2004, when he had endured four losing seasons in a five-year span.
The next season Penn State went 11-1, captured a Big Ten championship and an Orange Bowl victory over Bobby Bowden and the Florida State Seminoles.
Both members of the same Hall of Fame class, Bowden and Paterno had been wrestling for the coaching wins title until 2009 when Bowden retired with 389 victories.
His team always ranked among the best in the Big Ten for graduating players. As of last year, there were 49 academic All-Americans on the team — the third-highest among schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
A rookie Penn State assistant coach in 1950, Paterno’s fairytale 61 years in the program did not have a storybook ending.
The empire of “Joe Pa” collapsed in early November, as he was engulfed by a scandal and forced from his job.
Sandusky, the former champion-defensive coordinator once expected to succeed Paterno before a surprising retirement in 1999, was charged with sexually assaulting 10 boys over 15 years.
The coach was criticized for not going to the police when told a young boy was molested inside a football complex in 2002.
“This is a tragedy,” Paterno said following the scandal. “It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”
Mike McQueary, a graduate assistant at the time, testified that he had seen Sandusky attacking a child and that he told Paterno, who waited a day before alerting school authorities. The coach never told police and the state’s top police officer later said Paterno failed his “moral responsibility.”
Athletics director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz stepped down after being charged with perjury in a grand jury investigation into Sandusky’s actions.
During the coach’s tenure, Penn State produced 33 first-round NFL draft picks and a roster that included the likes of Franco Harris, Jack Ham and Larry Johnson.
He is survived by his wife, Sue and five children.
A legend in college football, Paterno was a father figure to the Nittany Lion faithful in the rural Pennsylvania community — his phone number is still listed in the phone book simply under “Paterno, Joseph V.”
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