Paterno dies just 74 days after being fired as Penn State’s football coach
The house at the end of the block was fast taking on the feel of a shrine when Joe Paterno stepped into the crisp November night with his wife, Sue, by his side. Students had gathered on the lawn, some carrying hand-lettered signs, many near tears and all of them confused, sad and angry.
For the first time in nearly half a century, Paterno was no longer Penn State’s head coach, fired moments earlier by university trustees desperate to contain the damage caused by a child sex-abuse scandal involving former defensive coordinator and one-time heir apparent Jerry Sandusky.
An era was ending, Paterno acknowledged.
“Right now, I’m not the coach. And I’ve got to get used to that,” he said.
A mere 74 days later, Paterno was dead.
Paterno’s 46th season in charge at Penn State began with a blindside hit—an omen, perhaps, of the trouble to come.
As the Nittany Lions ran drills during a preseason practice Aug. 7, Paterno was watching the defense when wide receiver Devon Smith slammed into the then-84-year-old coach, injuring his shoulder and pelvis. Paterno spent two nights in the hospital, and the injuries would keep him in the pressbox during games for much of the season.
But he returned to practice three days after the collision, insisting the injuries would not force him into retirement.
“The day I wake up in the morning and say, ‘Hey, do I have to go to practice again?’ then I’ll know it’s time to get out,” Paterno said.
The Nittany Lions began the year as unsettled at quarterback as they had been the previous season, when their 7-6 record was their worst since going 4-7 in 2004. But Penn State’s resounding 41-7 victory over FCS opponent Indiana State in the season-opener returned the Nittany Lions to the Top 25 for the first time in 11 months—just in time for a visit from then-No. 3 Alabama, a rare showdown between two of the country’s most storied programs.
With Beaver Stadium rocking, Penn State took the lead with a field goal on its first possession. But the Nittany Lions would manage only one more first down the rest of the first half as the Tide rolled to a 27-11 win.
“We certainly deserved a whooping today,” Paterno said. “I think we’ve just got a lot of work ahead of us.”
That became even more evident in the following weeks, as the Nittany Lions barely scraped out wins against Temple and lowly Indiana.
But the quarterback debate was eventually resolved—enough, at least, so that the bruising running game and ferocious defense that had been Paterno’s formula for success could take over once again. By the time Penn State headed to Northwestern, where Paterno would equal Eddie Robinson’s record for most coaching victories, the Nittany Lions were tied with Wisconsin atop their Big Ten division and eligible for a bowl game at 6-1.
“Joe’s always talked about Eddie with a great deal of respect, nothing but admiration for him,” Paterno’s son Jay, Penn State’s quarterbacks coach, said then. “When you’re in that kind of company, that’s pretty elite company.”
A week later, on Oct. 29, Penn State slogged out historic victory No. 409 in the snow against Illinois. The Nittany Lions fumbled six times, losing two of them, but Silas Redd scored on a 3-yard run with just over a minute to play to make Paterno the winningest coach in major college football.
The electronic sign boards lit up with congratulations, and fans braved the cold and snow to stick around after the game and celebrate their beloved “JoePa.” At the postgame ceremony, Penn State president Graham Spanier and athletic director Tim Curley presented Paterno with a plaque that read, “Joe Paterno. Educator of Men. Winningest Coach. Division One Football.”
“It really is something I’ve very proud of, to be associated with Eddie Robinson,” Paterno said. “Something like this means a lot to me, an awful lot.”
The victory improved Penn State to 8-1 and bumped the Lions up to No. 16 in the AP poll. As the lone unbeaten left in Big Ten play, with a two-game lead in the loss column in its division, Penn State had the inside track to the conference championship game.
Get there and win, and Paterno and Penn State would be headed to the Rose Bowl.
And then came the concussive blow that only a very few saw coming.
Sandusky, the architect of Penn State’s ferocious defenses, was arrested Nov. 5 on charges of sexually abusing a total of 10 boys over 15 years. The details in the grand jury report were graphic and lurid, a shocking rebuttal of Sandusky’s reputation as someone devoted to helping at-risk kids. Worse, some of the alleged assaults were placed at the Penn State football complex.
Then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary testified he saw one of those assaults in 2002 and reported it to Paterno, who in turn told his superiors, Curley and university vice president Gary Schultz, who was head of campus security. Paterno insisted McQueary did not use the same graphic descriptions he has in court, where McQueary has said he saw what he believed was Sandusky raping a boy of about 10 or 12 in the Penn State showers. And Paterno swore he had no idea until then that Sandusky was a danger, despite a 1998 incident that was investigated by campus police.
Paterno’s failure to call State College police, or even follow up with Curley and Schultz, initially sparked outrage outside Happy Valley.
With the university engulfed in turmoil, Paterno announced on Nov. 9 that he would retire at the end of the season.
“This is a tragedy,” Paterno said. “It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”
The trustees would have none of it. Following a two-hour meeting that same night, vice chair John Surma instructed an assistant athletic director relay a message to Paterno’s home to call him.
According to The Washington Post, Surma told Paterno, “In the best interests of the university, you are terminated.” Paterno hung up and repeated the words to his wife, who redialed the number.
“After 61 years he deserved better,” Sue Paterno said into the phone. “He deserved better.” Then she hung up.
“Obviously Joe Paterno is a worldwide icon and has done a tremendous amount for the university,” trustee Joel Myers said this week, explaining the board’s decision to fire the coach. “We have sorrow and all kinds of emotions, empathy, sympathy for what has occurred. That’s universal.
“But the university, this institution is greater than one person.”
Enraged students flooded State College streets in protest of Paterno’s firing, some throwing rocks and bottles and tipping over a TV news van. But tempers had calmed by Saturday, when Penn State hosted Nebraska in the Nittany Lions’ first game in 46 years without Paterno in charge.
Though tailgates parties went on as usual under sunny skies, a sense of surreal surrounded the stadium, as if fans weren’t quite sure how to react to Paterno’s absence and the events that caused it. Beaver Stadium was awash in blue—the color associated with child-abuse prevention—and public-service announcements flashed on the scoreboard throughout the game. Fans wore shirts and carried signs in support of Paterno, and several students came dressed as JoePa in rolled-up khakis, white socks and thick, dark glasses.
Finally, when Paterno’s image was shown in a video montage before the second-half kick-off, the student section let loose with chants of “Joe Paterno! Joe Paterno!”
The joy would be short-lived. The following Friday, Paterno’s son Scott announced that his father was being treated for lung cancer, diagnosed the previous weekend. The cancer was treatable, Scott Paterno said, and doctors were optimistic his father would make a full recovery.
But it was apparent Paterno’s decline was accelerating. A fall at his home Dec. 10 left him with a fractured pelvis, and he was hospitalized for a week to make it easier to receive his chemotherapy and radiation treatments while he recovered.
The cancer had clearly taken a toll. A picture of a frail Paterno showed him wearing a wig, his thick, dark hair gone. Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins, who landed Paterno’s only interview after the firing, wrote that his gravelly voice was now a soft rasp, “like wind blowing across a field of winter stalks, rattling the husks.” The second part of the interview was done at his bedside; later that day, Jan. 13, he was re-admitted to the hospital, where he died nine days later.
“You know, I’m not as concerned about me,” Paterno told Jenkins. “What’s happened to me has been great. I got five great kids. Seventeen great grandchildren. I’ve had a wonderful experience here at Penn State. I don’t want to walk away from this thing bitter.”
Walking away at all was hard for Paterno to imagine. Football, along with family, was his life, and he saw what happened to his friend and rival, Paul “Bear” Bryant.
“Quit coaching?” Bryant once said. “I’d croak in a week.”
He died less than a month after he retired at Alabama.
Bobby Bowden, the longtime Florida State coach and a contemporary of both Paterno and Bryant, said it was more than coincidence.
“I thought the same thing about Coach Bryant,” Bowden told the Tallahassee Democrat on Sunday. “He stopped coaching and Coach Bryant died a month later. Here with Joe, he stops coaching and he dies a few weeks later.”