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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.