Legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, 85, died Sunday morning from complications related to lung cancer.
Paterno’s death creates a void for his families, both his immediate relatives and the hundreds of thousands members of his extended Penn State family. His nuclear family made the following statement following the death of their patriarch, the all-time college football Division I leader in career victories (409).
“It is with great sadness that we announce that Joe Paterno passed away earlier today. His loss leaves a void in our lives that will never be filled.
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.
He has been many things in his life — a soldier, scholar, mentor, coach, friend and father. To my mother he was and is her soul mate, and the last several weeks have shown the strength of their love. To his children and grandchildren he is a shining example of how to live a good, decent and honest life, a standard to which we aspire.
When he decided to forego a career in law and make coaching his vocation, his father Angelo had but one command: Make an impact.
As the last 61 years have shown, Joe made an incredible impact. 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.
And so he leaves us with a peaceful mind, comforted by his “living legacy” of five kids, 17 grandchildren, and hundreds of young men whose lives he changed in more ways than can begin to be counted.
In lieu of flowers or gifts, the family requests that donations be made to the Special Olympics of Pennsylvania or the Penn State-THON, The Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon.”
As the statement indicates, Paterno’s influence extended far beyond his immediate family. He directly influenced the lives of young men who came to Penn State to play football. He influenced the lives of millions of Penn State football fans. He also influenced the lives of anyone who worked at or attended Penn State University.
It is impossible to exaggerate the impact Paterno had on Penn State. Not all of the exponential growth of Penn State and the surrounding community since Paterno arrived as an assistant coach in 1950 can be attributed to the legendary coach, but few would deny that a significant amount of that growth was due to Paterno.
He built and nurtured a football program known for its success on the field, in the classroom and in having a positive influence its players’ lives. As the program and Paterno gained a national profile and positive reputation, they raised the university’s national profile and reputation as well.
But Paterno’s legacy was tarnished in recent months by the sex abuse scandal surrounding former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. The furor surrounding the allegations against Sandusky and university officials caused the Penn State Board of Trustees to fire Paterno as head coach on Nov. 9, 2011. Paterno was not a target of the investigation, nor was he charged with any crime. But he was criticized for not doing more than reporting then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary’s account of seeing Sandusky in the shower with a young boy — an account that McQueary has testified did not include graphic details when he informed Paterno of the incident — to Penn State athletic director Tim Curley.
Members of the Board of Trustees have come under increasing criticism from members of the extended Penn State community for their handling of Paterno’s situation. The criticism may even be heightened following Paterno’s death.
Paterno used to speak of his fear that he would die soon after leaving coaching, which is what happened to fellow coaching legend Paul “Bear” Bryant. The college football icon died on Jan. 26, 1983, four weeks after retiring as head coach at Alabama.
Adding to Paterno’s misery is that he did not get the opportunity to retire. He was removed from his position by the board of trustees. How much of his death can be attributed to lung cancer and how much can be attributed to being removed from the job he loved is a matter of debate.
What can’t be debated is that Paterno remained loyal to his university to the end. In December, the month after he was fired, Joe and Sue Paterno contributed $100,000 to the university.
Paterno gave millions of dollars of his own money to the university. He has raised tens of millions more. That is why there is a Paterno wing to Penn State’s library, a distinction rarely, if ever, given to a football coach.
But Paterno was more than a football coach and his contributions extended far beyond the football field. As his father commanded him, Paterno made an impact, maybe more than anyone could have ever imagined.
That is why his loss is felt so deeply across the country, in the Penn State community and, most of all, by his own family.
More Penn State football stories on PhillyPhanatics.com:
In defense of Paterno (11/19/11)
Let’s learn the facts (11/8/11)
Paterno, Nittany Lions looking ahead (12/31/10)
Paterno one of a kind (11/3/10)