STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Other than family, football was everything to Joe Paterno. It was his lifeblood. It kept him pumped.
Life could not be the same without it.
“Right now, I’m not the coach. And I’ve got to get used to that,” Paterno said after the Penn State Board of Trustees fired him at the height of a child sex abuse scandal.
Before he could, he ran out of time.
Paterno, a sainted figure at Penn State for almost half a century but scarred forever by the scandal involving his one-time heir apparent, died Sunday at age 85.
His death came just 65 days after his son Scott said his father had been diagnosed with lung cancer. Mount Nittany Medical Center said he died at 9:25 a.m. of “metastatic small cell carcinoma of the lung,” an aggressive cancer that has spread from one part of the body to an unrelated area.
Friends and former colleagues believe there were other factors — the kind that wouldn’t appear on a death certificate.
“You can die of heartbreak. I’m sure Joe had some heartbreak, too,” said 82-year-old Bobby Bowden, the former Florida State coach who retired two years ago after 34 seasons in Tallahassee.
Longtime Nebraska coach Tom Osborne said he suspected “the emotional turmoil of the last few weeks might have played into it.”
And Mickey Shuler, who played tight end for Paterno from 1975 to 1977, held his alma mater accountable.
“I don’t think that the Penn State that he helped us to become and all the principles and values and things that he taught were carried out in the handling of his situation,” he said.
Paterno’s death just under three months following his last victory called to mind another coaching great, Alabama’s Paul (Bear) Bryant, who died less than a month after retiring.
“Quit coaching?” Bryant said late in his career. “I’d croak in a week.”
Paterno alluded to the remark made by his friend and rival, saying in 2003: “There isn’t anything in my life anymore except my family and my football. I think about it all the time.”
The winningest coach in major college football, Paterno roamed the Penn State sidelines for 46 seasons, his thick-rimmed glasses, windbreaker and jet-black sneakers as familiar as the Nittany Lions’ blue and white uniforms.
His devotion to what he called “Success with Honor” made Paterno’s fall all the more startling.
Happy Valley seemed perfect for him, a place where “JoePa” knew best, where he not only won more football games than any other major college coach, but won them the right way. With Paterno, character came first, championships second, academics before athletics. He insisted that on-field success not come at the expense of graduation rates.
But in the middle of his final season, the legend was shattered.
Paterno was engulfed in a child sex abuse scandal when a former trusted assistant, Jerry Sandusky, was accused of molesting 10 boys over a 15-year span, sometimes in the football building.
Outrage built quickly after the state’s top law enforcement official said the coach hadn’t fulfilled a moral obligation to go to authorities when a graduate assistant, Mike McQueary, reported seeing Sandusky with a young boy in the showers of the football complex in 2002.
McQueary said that he had seen Sandusky attacking the child with his hands around the boy’s waist but said he wasn’t 100 per cent sure it was intercourse.
McQueary described Paterno as shocked and saddened and said the coach told him he had “done the right thing” by reporting the encounter.
Paterno waited a day before alerting school officials and never went to the police.
“I didn’t know which way to go … and rather than get in there and make a mistake,” Paterno told The Washington Post in an interview nine days before his death.
“You know, (McQueary) didn’t want to get specific,” Paterno said. “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.”
When the scandal broke in November, Paterno said he would retire following the 2011 season. He also said he was “absolutely devastated” by the abuse case.
“This is a tragedy,” he 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 fired Paterno, effective immediately. Graham Spanier, one of the longest-serving university presidents in the nation, also was fired.
Paterno was notified by phone, not in person, a decision that board vice chairman John Surma regretted, trustees said. Lanny Davis, the lawyer retained by trustees as an adviser, said Surma intended to extend his regrets over the phone before Paterno hung up him.
After weeks of escalating criticism by some former players and alumni about a lack of transparency, trustees last week said they fired Paterno in part because he failed a moral obligation to do more in reporting the 2002 allegation.
A lawyer for Paterno on Thursday called the board’s comments self-serving and unsupported by the facts. Paterno fully reported what he knew to the people responsible for campus investigations, lawyer Wick Sollers said.
“He did what he thought was right with the information he had at the time,” Sollers said.
The lung cancer was found during a follow-up visit for a bronchial illness. A few weeks later, Paterno broke his pelvis after a fall but did not need surgery.
The hospital said Paterno was surrounded by family members, who have requested privacy.
Paterno had been in the hospital since Jan. 13 for observation after what his family called minor complications from his cancer treatments. Washington Post writer Sally Jenkins, who conducted the final interview, described Paterno then as frail, speaking mostly in a whisper and wearing a wig. The second half of the two-day interview was done at his bedside.
On Sunday, 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 was his father’s quarterbacks coach, was crying.
“His loss leaves a void in our lives that will never be filled,” the family said in a statement. “He died as he lived. 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.”
Paterno built a program based on the credo of “Success with Honor,” and he found both. He 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.
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.”
“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.”
New Penn State football coach Bill O’Brien, hired earlier this month, offered his condolences.
“There are no words to express my respect for him as a man and as a coach,” O’Brien said in a statement. “To be following in his footsteps at Penn State is an honour.”
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 maintained a high standard in a very difficult profession. Joe preached toughness, hard work and clean competition,” Sandusky said in a statement. “Most importantly, he had the courage to practice what he preached.”
The team 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.
“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.”
Paterno certainly had detractors. One former Penn State professor called his high-minded words on academics a farce, and a former administrator said players often got special treatment. His coaching style often was considered too conservative. Some thought he held on to his job too long, and a move to push him out in 2004 failed.
But the critics were in the minority, and his program was never cited for major NCAA violations. The child sex abuse scandal, however, did prompt separate inquiries by the U.S. Department of Education and the NCAA into the school’s handling.
Paterno didn’t intend to become a coach. He played quarterback and defensive back for Brown University and set a school record with 14 career interceptions, but when he graduated in 1950 he planned to go to law school. He said his father hoped he would someday be president.
But when Paterno 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 in an interview at Penn State’s Beaver Stadium before being inducted into college football’s Hall of Fame. “Come to this hick town? From Brooklyn?”