He was the winningest coach in major college football, an advocate for blending sports and academics to create the true student-athlete, and an iconic American sports figure—until an error in judgment clouded his legacy
This is an article from the Jan. 30, 2012 issue
His was one of the most profound, legacy-altering final chapters in modern American sport, a sudden fall from idolatry to shame that seemed unthinkable for most of his long life. He had been a coaching giant who championed the potential of youth, and in the end he was fired for not doing enough to halt a heinous betrayal of the young. Joe Paterno, who died on Sunday morning at age 85 of lung cancer, once seemed certain to be remembered forever as a man who did everything right and now will be recalled as a man who also did one thing terribly wrong.
For nearly half a century Paterno projected a safe harbor in the turbulent waters of big-time college sports. If a bag of money was found on a recruit's doorstep in Texas, well at least we've got JoePa up at Penn State doing it the right way. If a bunch of players went on a crime spree in Ohio, thank goodness for JoePa because he keeps his boys in line. If nobody was going to class in Florida and still dressing out on Saturday, all the more reason to appreciate the way JoePa sends most of his ex-players out into the world with diplomas. No matter how much was hypocritical, discomforting or just plain wrong with Division I athletics, JoePa was in State College, keeping the world safe for idealists and dreamers.
Paterno came to Penn State in 1950 as a 23-year-old assistant coach, a Brooklyn-born child of Italian immigrants who was educated and played football in the Ivy League, at Brown. He took over as Penn State's head coach 16 years later and in 46 seasons won 409 games—more than any other coach in major college football history—along with two national championships (while four times being voted out of the title despite an unbeaten record). But there was much more. Conducting what he named his Grand Experiment, in '67, Paterno sought to transform the phrase student-athlete from an increasingly belittled oxymoron to the essential truth of his program. Football success would only come hand in glove with academic excellence. "We try to remember," Paterno once told Reader's Digest, "football is part of life, not life itself."
He dressed his teams in blue-and-white uniforms so simple that they seemed to have been borrowed from the local high school's practice supply, and dressed himself in rolled-up khakis, white socks, black sneakers and Coke-bottle glasses—a look so nerdy and counterintuitive that it became iconic. His teams played a straightforward, smashmouth style rooted in the old-school tenets of field position, ball control and defense. That defense produced the nickname Linebacker U, for the assembly line of great players at that position. Thirty-three of his players were selected in the first round of the NFL draft, but 47 of them were also Academic All-Americans. The team's graduation rate was consistently higher than others contending for championships, and in the aftermath of his 1982 national title, Paterno encouraged Penn State's board of trustees to toughen admissions requirements for athletes. He helped raise $14 million to rebuild Penn State's Pattee Library; in 2000 it was renamed the Paterno Library. The Paterno family has given more than $4 million to the university.
Testimonials to Paterno's virtue would fill that library. As late as December 2010, when announcing that the coach would receive the Gerald R. Ford Award for being an advocate of college athletics, NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a statement, "For me, Coach Paterno is the definitive role model of what it means to be a college coach." Paterno's players went into the world armed with his wisdom to guide them. "The older I get," said 1967 and '68 All-America tight end Ted Kwalick in '86, "the smarter Joe Paterno gets." Paterno was the reason to believe that a flawed system could be made to work.
All of that changed last autumn. Paterno's tenure at Penn State was terminated on Nov. 9, when he was fired (along with University president Graham Spanier) by the school's board of trustees, nine games into the season. Paterno's firing came in the wake of a child-sex-abuse scandal involving former Nittany Lions assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, which plunged the university into ignominy and shame and implicated Paterno as one of Sandusky's enablers. Once proud and always stubborn, Paterno was reduced to a pathetic figure, shouting his appreciation to gathered students out the front door of his house. He was broken by the scandal and its fallout. "This is a tragedy," Paterno said on the day he was fired. "It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more."
The Sandusky case unfolded late in the fall of what seemed to be another renaissance year for Paterno's program. The Nittany Lions were 8--1 overall and 5--0 in the Big Ten. Penn State did not play a game on Saturday, Nov. 5, but on that day Sandusky was arrested and charged with sexually abusing eight boys. (The number of alleged victims has grown to 10.) He had been an assistant coach under Paterno for 31 seasons, from 1969 through '99, defensive coordinator for 23 of those and for a time was mentioned as a likely heir to the head-coaching position.
The grand jury report that supported Sandusky's indictment included a description of a 2002 incident in which then graduate assistant coach Mike McQueary witnessed what he believed to be Sandusky having sex with a 10-year-old boy in a Penn State shower and told Paterno about it. According to the report, Paterno was informed of Sandusky's "fondling or doing something of a sexual nature" and moved the complaint up the chain of command to his boss, athletic director Tim Curley, who, along with a university vice president, was indicted for perjury and failure to report suspected child abuse. (Both Curley and the vice president, Gary Schultz, have pleaded not guilty.) In his only lengthy interview about the scandal, published in The Washington Post on Jan. 15, Paterno explained that he "didn't know exactly how to handle it [the information from McQueary] and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was. 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 kept his job for just four days after Sandusky's arrest, amidst an onslaught of outrage that he had done so little to stop Sandusky, who allegedly continued to abuse young boys for seven more years. (Sandusky faces 50 counts of sexual abuse and has denied the charges.) Paterno, trustee Mark Dambly would say more than two months later, "did not meet his moral obligation." That was a startling condemnation, a man long regarded as morally virtuous, dismissed and criticized in scandal seemingly bereft of morality.
On Nov. 18, Paterno's family announced that the coach had been diagnosed with a treatable form of lung cancer and would begin receiving medical care immediately. Shortly after, Paterno was hospitalized with a broken pelvis after a fall at his home in State College, the same modest house he and his wife, Sue, purchased in 1967 and where they raised their five children. And this was the image that remained: An old, feeble man, long buoyed by his truly honorable life's work, left fading away, indelibly stained.
It had been so different for so long. Joseph Vincent Paterno was born on Dec. 21, 1926, the first of Angelo and Florence Paterno's four children. He attended Brooklyn Preparatory School and was recruited to play football at Brown. Paterno struggled to fit in with the polished rich boys in college, but on the field he was a star quarterback and defensive back who still shares the school's career record with 14 interceptions. More important, he forged a bond with Brown coach Rip Engle. As a senior, Paterno was accepted into Boston University's law school, a career path that would fulfill his father's dream. But instead of going to Boston, Paterno postponed his matriculation when Engle offered him an assistant coaching position on his staff at a regional agricultural school in the hills of central Pennsylvania with no significant football history.
A city boy, Paterno first chafed at the rural environs where he would spend the rest of his life, and then embraced the solitude that would provide an ideal laboratory for building a football team. Paterno succeeded Engle in 1966, went 5--5 in his first year and then averaged nine wins per season for the next two decades, transforming not just a football program, but the university, into a national power. (When Paterno arrived, Penn State's enrollment was 12,600. The school now is a respected research institution with an enrollment of more than 45,000.)
The Nittany Lions went unbeaten in 1968, '69 and '73 but were never voted national champions, which triggered in Paterno a careerlong advocacy for a college football playoff. Following the '72 season, he accepted a four-year, $1.3 million contract to coach the New England Patriots but changed his mind. (He was making about $35,000 a year at Penn State.) "So in a couple of years, maybe we'd have gone to the Super Bowl," Paterno said at the time. "So what? Here I have an opportunity to affect the lives of a lot of young people—and not just on my football team. I'm not kidding myself that that would be true at the professional level." These were words that galvanized the Paterno Legend.
In the Sugar Bowl that followed the 1978 season and decided the national title, Penn State and Paterno were beaten 14--7 by Alabama and iconic coach Bear Bryant after Paterno ordered two straight running plays into the middle of the Crimson Tide defense from the one-yard line late in the game. The defeat haunted Paterno. "I beat up on myself not only immediately but ... halfway into the next season," Paterno wrote in his '89 autobiography with Bernard Asbell, Paterno: By the Book. "It hammered at my ego. When I stood toe to toe with Bear Bryant, he outcoached me."
Whispers grew that Paterno couldn't win the big one, but he silenced them in 1982 with his first national title. The Nittany Lions beat Georgia and Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker in the Sugar Bowl 27--23. Paterno called that the best team he'd ever coach, but four years later the Paterno mystique reached its zenith when his No. 2 Nittany Lions, seven-point underdogs, knocked off No. 1 Miami 14--10 in a good-versus-evil Fiesta Bowl that drew what is still the highest television rating for a college football game.
In a sense it would never get better for Paterno than that 1986 season. Before the Fiesta Bowl, SI named him Sportsman of the Year. Not only had he won two national titles in five seasons, but Paterno was also the conscience of college sport. He looked like a professor but competed like a linebacker. He could be combative and imperious with the media but he could also be brutally honest. For many years he hosted visiting writers at Friday-evening cocktail parties, with the understanding that nothing from the gatherings would be reported. After one of them, a writer who apparently wasn't aware that everything was off the record, wrote that Paterno said he would not leave for the NFL or politics because he didn't want to leave "college football to the Jackie Sherrills and Barry Switzers of the world." (It was a reference to the then Pittsburgh and Oklahoma coaches, respectively. Paterno denied that he was accusing either man of cheating.)
Paterno turned 60 years old 12 days before the Fiesta Bowl win over Miami. There was talk, even then, that he might retire soon. He and Sue, whom he had met while a Penn State assistant, built a comfortable and influential life in what was known as Happy Valley. This is how Paterno addressed the issue of retirement in 1986: "I don't want to stay too long. Bear Bryant maybe stayed too long. I don't want to linger." Bryant was 69 when he retired after the '82 season. Paterno could not have known that he would beat that by 15 years or that the theme of staying too long would dominate the latter stages of his career.
Two years after beating Miami in that epic Fiesta Bowl, Paterno endured his first non-winning season since his rookie year as Penn State's coach, falling to 5--6. There would be rallies: In 1991 the Nittany Lions finished No. 3 in the country, and in '94 they went 12--0 but were again voted second, this time behind a Nebraska powerhouse. Penn State didn't win another Big Ten title in the ensuing decade, including a combined record of 7--16 in 2003 and '04. Paterno's longtime friend, Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, passed him in career coaching victories in '03, and then Paterno passed him back in '08. Penn State won 11 games in '05 and 11 more in each of '08 and '09.
Paterno hung on despite twice being injured on the sideline and having a hip replaced following the 2008 regular season. But his teams were contending again, playing in a sold-out home stadium that had grown by more than 60,000 seats to 106,572 in Paterno's tenure. And if it was his assistants who were doing the heavy lifting, it was still enough to stay the strident calls for his retirement. It was just enough to protect the man's name. Until the end. Now his legacy is in history's hands.