Lantern file photo
Joe Paterno was the head coach of the Penn State football program for 46 seasons, during which Paterno won more Division I college football games than any other coach ever has.
Paterno set that record on Oct. 29, 2011, with a 10-7 victory over Illinois. That was a moment to be celebrated, but at the time, the full significance of that game was not known. Not only was it a record-setting game; it was the last football game Paterno would ever coach.
But prior to Penn State’s next football game on Nov. 12, Tom Bradley took over as interim head coach, replacing Paterno following the allegations that one of Paterno’s longtime assistant coaches, Jerry Sandusky, had sexually abused children. One of Paterno’s graduate assistants, Mike McQueary, had witnessed Sandusky sexually abusing a young boy and told the coach about Sandusky’s actions. Paterno took limited action in reporting this information, and left Penn State in the wake of the scandal.
It initially appeared that Paterno had been fired by the Penn State Board of Trustees for his role in the Sandusky scandal. It eventually became clear that Paterno, whose contract was up at the end of the 2011 season, was suspended for four games with pay. His contract expired and his retirement clauses kicked in, but the initial report that he had been fired after 46 seasons was very difficult to accept as a college football fan. Having coached for so long, I assumed Paterno would be able to step away from coaching on his own terms.
Paterno made a mistake in his minimal reporting of the horrible crimes that Sandusky allegedly committed, but one should not question his passion and dedication for the game of football, and the Penn State football program he coached for so many years. For that reason, I had believed Paterno would die as the head coach of Penn State football, or coach until he was too ill to continue.
It now appears that had it not been for one of the worst scandals in sports history, he soon would have died as their head coach or had to step down due to illness. On Nov. 18, less than three weeks after Paterno coached his last game, his son Scott revealed that his father had been diagnosed with lung cancer. On Sunday, Joe Paterno died at the age of 85.
Since 1966, Joe Paterno had known no other life than being the head coach of Penn State football, and he had been a member of the school’s coaching staff since 1950. Joe Paterno was very ill over the past couple months, and chances are that his health was declining much more than outside observers could have known while he was still their head coach.
That said, the loss of a true love has been hypothesized to hasten one’s death when they are already ill. Joe Paterno truly loved Penn State football, and losing the opportunity to coach his team might very well have contributed to his death less than three months later.
Sadly, the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal is going to leave permanent damage on the end of Joe Paterno’s career legacy, but the world of college football already misses and will continue to miss him. A winner of 409 games and two national championships, he was as successful as any coach in college football history.
Joe Paterno’s name has been synonymous with Penn State football for so long, it is hard to think of the program without him. On Sept. 1, 2012, when Penn State plays its home opener at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pa., against Ohio University, Joe Paterno will be nowhere to be seen. The Nittany Lions’ new head coach, Bill O’Brien, must shoulder the massive burden of replacing a legend.
Looking back at the past three months of Joe Paterno’s life is a vivid, exaggerated and all-too-real image of how quickly a person can fall from grace. In that time span, Joe Paterno became the all-time winningest coach in college football, a main subject in a scandal that has rocked the sports world and died. Life and legacy can change very quickly in this world, and Joe Paterno is a major example.
Joe Paterno is now gone, but he will not be forgotten. While the sexual abuse scandal is far from over as Sandusky still faces trial, and Joe Paterno’s limited reporting of the crimes will affect his lasting legacy, he should always be remembered for his contributions to college football.
On his way to becoming the all-time winningest coach in Division I football, he turned Penn State into one of the nation’s best college football programs. While the university might take some steps to distance themselves from Joe Paterno’s name in the continued aftermath of the Sandusky scandal, few coaches have ever made as great of an impact on a university as Joe Paterno did at Penn State.