Happy Valley was once home to a man who holds the record for most victories (409) by a Division I coach. Joe Paterno, former head football coach for the Pennsylvania State University, passed away Sunday at age 85. Best known as “JoePa,” he taught his students to play with honor and sportsmanship, emphasizing the importance of building character over the importance of winning championships.
Off the field, however, lurked an unpleasant secret, one that would discredit the renowned coach’s fame. Paterno was a fatherly figure to all, but his career was tarnished by a child sex abuse scandal that brought his career to an abrupt end.
In November, shortly after Penn State’s Board of Trustees ousted Paterno, his son Scott Paterno announced that his father had been diagnosed with a treatable form of lung cancer. Doctors found the cancer during a follow-up procedure for a bronchial illness. CNN reported that Paterno broke his pelvis a few weeks later as the result of a fall, worsening his health problems. However, the injury did not call for any surgery. On Saturday, Paterno was listed in serious condition after suffering complications from lung cancer.
USA Today published the Paterno family’s statement Sunday morning, addressing his death. It read, “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.”
For 46 seasons, Paterno moseyed along the sidelines, wearing his infamous windbreaker and thick-rimmed glasses. In partnership with the Nittany Lions players, Paterno won 409 games and two national titles. But during his 46th season, Paterno took a crushing blow. He became immersed in a child sex abuse scandal when one of his former assistants, Jerry Sandusky, was accused of sexually abusing at least eight boys over a 15-year span.
The Board of Trustees released Paterno after 61 years of service because he had a moral responsibility to report the allegations against Sandusky in 2002 to outside authorities but failed to do so. With all the media coverage from the Sandusky case, the Trustees thought it best to release Paterno from his position.
Eventually, the Sandusky investigation made its way in front of a grand jury. Paterno testified that he had conveyed accusations to his bosses from graduate assistant Mike McQueary, who claimed he saw Sandusky sexually abusing a young boy in the showers of the PSU football complex.
ABC News reported that McQueary would testify that he saw Sandusky’s hands around a young boy’s waist, but wasn’t quite certain if it was intercourse. McQueary would continue to speak of Paterno’s reactions as being terribly saddened and surprised.
Paterno allegedly reassured McQueary that he was doing the right thing by reporting what he saw. Even though he alerted school officials, Paterno never notified the police as per legal obligation. Sandusky is pleading innocent and is currently out on bail, awaiting trial.
Outrage over the scandal and Paterno’s inaction is ongoing. Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) announced their plan to picket the former coach’s funeral, which took place on Wednesday. Margie Phelps, one of WBC’s leaders, took to Twitter to make the announcement: “Joe Paterno is dead. WBC will picket his funeral. He’s in hell. Don’t partake of your neighbor’s sin.” This is just one of the many sentiments tweeted on the day of Paterno’s death.
Meanwhile, others are remaining respectful and recalling great moments with Paterno and what he did for Penn State football. “While there is a debate about whether or not JoePa did what he should have done with the Sandusky case, can we please leave that to another time?” asked first-year student Andrew Sandridge. “There will be another time to revisit this situation, and you can express your opinion then. For today and the rest of the week can we please just celebrate the man for the coach, role model and icon he was to us all?”
Paterno took the Nittany Lions to 37 bowl games; 250 players during who he coached throughout his tenure have gone on to play professional football. For now, in the wake of his death, many are striving to remember Paterno as the lovable, legendary college football coach who always tried to make his mission clear: success with honor.