Genaro C. Armas
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 during a child sex abuse scandal.
Before he could adjust, 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 confirmed that was the cause of death, at 9:25 a.m.
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,” Shuler said.
Paterno’s death just under three months after 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.”
Career ends suddenly
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 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 percent 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.
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 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.”