Sad Day in Happy Valley - Joe Paterno Dies at 85January 23, 2012
It's really the Nittany Valley, but Joe Paterno, the man more responsible than anyone for unofficially changing that name to "Happy Valley", died Sunday morning due to complications from lung cancer, at 85 years of age. Around the nation and the world, Penn State students, fans and alumni mourned the death of the man who left a legacy behind in that narrow geographic feature nestled in the Appalachian mountains of central Pennsylvania which will never be equaled. It's a legacy that extends far beyond those hills which surround State College and reaches into the lives of countless former players, coaches, friends and college football fans everywhere.
Joe Paterno departed this life as major college football's winningest coach of all time. He won 409 total games, two national championships and had three other teams which went undefeated during his brilliant 46-year tenure as the head football coach at Penn State. Paterno was born in the borough of Brooklyn in New York City in 1926. He served as an usher at Ebbets Field during Dodgers games as a youngster. He later attended and played quarterback at Brown University in Providence, RI. He first stepped foot on the Penn State campus in 1950, going there with his collegiate coach, Rip Engle. After serving as an assistant to Engle for 16 seasons, he became the head coach of the Nittany Lion football team in 1966. At that time, Beaver Stadium on the PSU campus seated only 40,000, and the team was barely noticed on the national scene.
Paterno changed all that. His early teams dominated the eastern football scene, challenging the traditional powers in the region like Syracuse and Pittsburgh. His teams repeatedly won the Lambert Trophy, which was emblematic of eastern football supremacy. Playing as an independent, it was difficult for Penn State to gain national respect, since the opponents they were able to schedule didn't always include a lot of traditional power teams. Undaunted, Paterno kept preaching the same philosophy. His teams were known for not being flashy showboaters. Instead, they wore plain navy blue-and-white uniforms, never with the names of the players on the back of their shirts, and with a reputation as a fundamentally sound, mentally very tough team. Paterno's teams were nothing more than the logical extension of his own indominable spirit and will to win.
Although there would be a few unbeaten teams during that era, none of them were seriously considered for the national championship in the final polls. Then in 1982, the Nittany Lions finally broke through and defeated Georgia, winning their first national championship. Five seasons later in 1987, they again played for the national title against Miami and won.
With nothing left to prove, Paterno continued coaching his team until last November, when he was fired due to the fallout from the Jerry Sandusky arrest for allegations involving sexual assault. Sandusky had been a long time defensive coordinator on Paterno's staff, who himself was forced into retirement in 1999. Paterno was fired by the Penn State Board of Trustees due to allegations that he had not completely followed up on a report from one of his graduate assistant coaches, who told Paterno he witnessed Sandusky sexually assaulting a young boy in the Penn State locker room in 2002. Paterno had reported the incident to then president of the university, Graham Spanier, but the police were never contacted by him or any other school administrators.
The case generated a major media frenzy in State College and outrage nationally from many quarters. In the end, the school probably had little choice but to clean house and remove all vestiges of the Paterno regime for public relations reasons, if nothing else. The board chose to inform Paterno of his dismissal via a telephone call.
A phone call? That's all the respect he received after selflessly and tirelessly representing the school, donating huge sums of his own money to help fund a library, health center and other academic programs on campus, and serving as a teacher, ambassador and the single biggest reason that a previously little-known school became a nationally respected institution of higher learning and a great power in major college football. He deserved and deserves far more respect than that.
Yes, there remain many unanswered questions about Paterno's role in the Sandusky case, going back many years before his arrest in November. How much did Paterno or other Penn State coaches and administrators know about Sandusky's alleged sexual misconduct, and when did they know it? The allegations date back to when Sandusky was still a member of the football coaching staff. He remained a close insider even after he left his position as an assistant coach. Were Paterno and the other school administrators more concerned about preserving Penn State's image as a lily-white paragon of major college football virtue than they were about the alleged victims of Sandusky's sexual assaults? Some of these questions may never be fully answered, but unfortunately for him, Paterno will no longer be able to answer his critics, and that's a very sad truth. He deserved better treatment than he received from a school administration which for years has held itself up as a shining example of all that's right about college academics and sports. Former PSU tailback Lydell Mitchell was quoted as saying, "We'll fight the fight for him. Joe's legacy will always be intact because we won't let Joe's legacy die."
Richard Nixon enjoyed the luxury of having almost twenty years to rehabilitate his shattered image in the wake of the Watergate scandal, and was somewhat successful in doing so. Paterno will not enjoy that same opportunity. His side of the story will probably never be truly known because he no longer can tell it. Paterno's sad descent to death was eerily reminiscent of Paul "Bear" Bryant, the legendary Alabama coach who died of a heart attack in 1982 only a little more than a month after announcing his retirement from coaching. I once met an 87-year old woman who had been a County Clerk. She was forced to retire at age 65. She told me she sat at home for a week afterward and knew she would die within six months if she didn't continue doing something meaningful to her. She became the manager of a title company and was still a very sharp lady even at age 87, with an excellent memory. Some folks just need to have work as a part of their life. Without it, they're lost.
What is known about Paterno is that he's revered by his former players, friends, close associates and an overwhelming majority of Penn State students, faculty and alumni. His legacy, although possibly tarnished, will still live on forever in the hearts and minds of those who knew the man, and many others. Many of his former players and friends talked about how he would always ask them about their families, and would remember the names of their parents and children. My own father was a very big Paterno fan, although he had no particular ties to Penn State. In the late 1970's, he wrote Paterno a letter and received a very warm, cordial response, which was obviously written by Paterno himself. He was a very humble man, and his home telephone number was listed in the regular, local phone directory. According to Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer, Paterno once told him that he still used a rotary dial phone at home because he liked the idea that the time it took to dial a number gave you a little extra time to carefully consider what you were about to say to someone on the other end of the line. Meyer also said, "We have lost a remarkable person and someone who affected the lives of so many people in so many positive ways. His presence will be dearly missed. His legacy as a coach, as a winner and as a champion will carry on forever."
Joe always made a point of giving all the credit to his players. He lived in a modest home and repeatedly turned down far more lucrative coaching offers to remain in Happy Valley, doing what he loved most, which was teaching young men how to play the game of football, and also acting as a true mentor to assure that they would all go on to lead happy, successful lives. Paterno's legacy is most certainly first and foremost the positive effect he's had on the lives of his players, many of whom have gone on to accomplish great things in their own lives.
Former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden was quoted as saying, "I think history will say that he's one of the greatest...He's an icon."
Former PSU quarterback Tood Blackledge said, "Joe Paterno died of a broken heart today." Blackledge went on to suggest that the way the school handled Paterno's dismissal in November led to his sudden death. Former PSU tight end Mickey Shuler echoed Blackledge's words, saying, "It's just sad because I think he died from other things than lung cancer."
Perhaps it's true that Paterno lost the will to fight the ultimate battle of his life...the will to survive. If so, one can't help but think that things might have been different if school administrators hadn't treated Paterno with the lack of respect they showed in view of his monumental contributions to the school.
There were moments of silence to commemorate Paterno's passing at Penn State athletic events on Sunday, and many fans paid tribute by visiting the bronze statue of Paterno outside of Beaver Stadium, which now seats well over 100,000 and should forever be known as "The House that Joe Built."
The public address announcer said, "Please recognize now the passing earlier today of Penn State educator, philanthropist and coach, Joe Paterno. With coaching milestones too significant to list and impact too substantial to measure, JoePa, as he is known to Nittany Lion fans everywhere, will forever be remembered as a man whose family includes a team, a university and an entire sport. Thank you Coach Paterno."
1 comment(s) on this page. Add your own comment below.
I have been a fan of Joe Paterno and his philosophy since the late 70's. I have never been to Penn State, and I root for my own Montana team, but I have followed the record of Penn State for years. I am always happy to see PSU ranked nationally. I believe Joe Paterno got shafted in a rush to judgment which exhibited a 'kill the messenger' attitude towards Joe and his assistant QB coach. I don't understand how the board could justify firing him without even a hearing for him to face his detractors.
Thank you for pointing out the injustice here.