Joe Paterno's once-brilliant career will close under a dark cloud

Penn State coach Joe Paterno at practice Wednesday with assistant coach Mike McQueary, who witnessed alleged sexual abuse of a minor by defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky in 2002. Paterno has announced he will retire.
Penn State coach Joe Paterno at practice Wednesday with assistant coach Mike McQueary, who witnessed alleged sexual abuse of a minor by defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky in 2002. Paterno has announced he will retire. (JOE HERMITT / Harrisburg Patriot-News)
Posted: November 10, 2011

His reputation and legacy soiled now beyond recognition, Joe Paterno announced his retirement Wednesday as Penn State's football coach. Wednesday night, the school's board of trustees announced Paterno was done as coach, effectively immediately.

The end was a day long-awaited. But it arrived under unimaginable circumstances, with alleged child sexual abuse by a top Paterno assistant and claims of inadequate responses by the university and Paterno topping national headlines, eclipsing a record that included two national titles and five unbeaten seasons.

Does it matter right now that Joe Paterno is his sport's winningest coach?

It is virtually impossible to dispute that Paterno, 84, stayed too long, several decades after retirement questions first arose. There is no talk of the "Grand Experiment" Paterno once espoused, no suggestion today that Penn State won football games while maintaining its ideals.

For so long, Paterno's legacy seemed scandal-proof: six decades at the school, head coach for more than 45 seasons, first Division I-A coach to reach 400 wins.

"Whenever Joe does retire, and when you look at all the areas involved, he'll go down as the most successful and probably the greatest coach we've ever had," retired Florida State coach Bobby Bowden once said. "All the years he's coached at one school, what he's done for academics and the character of his players and the football team has been so good for so long."

Wednesday, rival coaches talked instead of their sadness at how the tragedy that had unfolded in State College had engulfed Paterno.

Paterno's career retrospective appeared destined to include lighthearted references to a kid from Brooklyn, a Brown University graduate, showing up at Penn State thinking he was merely stopping off on the way to law school.

"It was a cemetery," Paterno joked about State College, recalling the town when he first arrived in 1950 as a 23-year-old assistant to Penn State football coach Rip Engle. "You couldn't get a drink. And the only place you could buy a plate of spaghetti was a place called the Tavern. It cost a buck, and they had celery in the sauce!"

His teams wore famously outdated uniforms, eventually adorned by a Nike swoosh. Paterno himself kept the same famous game-day look for decades, the horn-rimmed glasses, the too-short khakis and sneakers. He donated millions to Penn State and his fund-raising brought in many millions more. He remained proudly behind the technological times.

"I couldn't download a jar of peanut butter," he once said.

Coach forever

He survived on-field trials. When fans, alumni, and sportswriters called for his head after miserable seasons in 2003 and 2004, his Nittany Lions went 11-1 in 2005, won the Orange Bowl, and quieted the critics. He got past a broken leg in 2006, a hip injury a couple of years later, then severe digestive-tract problems. This year, a hit he never saw coming from a player at practice sent him to the press box. This may still have been the end for Paterno even if the scandal hadn't overtaken him. Or maybe he really did plan to coach forever.

"I don't want to die," he once told the State College Quarterback Club. "Football keeps me alive."

He lived in the same four-bedroom rancher he purchased half a century back, drove a used BMW for years, kept the same vocabulary. ("They licked us pretty good.") He eschewed offers to coach in the NFL, including an offer that came with a small ownership stake in the New England Patriots.

In recent years, Paterno had said he had delegated more authority to assistants. He also had said, "I still stick my two cents in."

A lifelong passion to succeed - "a maniacal need to be first," his own brother called it - long ago trumped his other interests. He was never an easy coach to play for or coach under. He never intended to be.

"He's a lot like your parents," said Charlie Pittman, star Penn State halfback in the 1960s. "It's sometimes difficult to appreciate them until you've grown and become a parent yourself."

Most of his great victories came decades back. His greatest team was probably the 1986 edition, which finished 12-0 and No. 1 after beating Miami in the Fiesta Bowl, led by Shane Conlan. His 1982 national-title team included victories over Nebraska and Notre Dame, then beat Georgia and Herschel Walker in the Sugar Bowl.

Debates about Paterno's most talented team have to include his undefeated 1969 squad, which finished No. 2 in the country. The defense included Jack Ham and Mike Reid. Running backs included Pittman, Lydell Mitchell, and Franco Harris. President Richard Nixon infuriated Paterno by presenting Texas with a national championship trophy of his own making. The angry coach refused to accept a runner-up award Nixon later offered.

Penn State's 1994 team also went undefeated, finished No. 2, and included a host of future pros: quarterback Kerry Collins, tailback Ki-Jana Carter, wide receiver Bobby Engram, tight end Kyle Brady, and guard Jeff Hartings.

Paterno's 1968 team also went undefeated and finished No. 3. Their 15-14 Orange Bowl win over Kansas was unforgettable. The Jayhawks celebrated when they knocked down a Chuck Burkhart pass on Penn State's two-point conversion try with no time left. But, after having played four downs with 12 defenders, Kansas' infraction was finally spotted by the officials. Penn State converted on the reprieve.

Yet another undefeated season came in 1973, the year Monsignor Bonner graduate John Cappelletti won the Heisman Trophy. Complaints about Penn State's schedule not being strong enough - the Nittany Lions finished No. 3 that season - resulted in Paterno's adding more top-shelf national opponents, scheduling series of games with Nebraska, Notre Dame, and Alabama.

'St. Joe'

He talked decades back of a "Grand Experiment" - the successful marriage of academics and athletics. Penn State's graduation rate, recently cited as high as 84 percent, was far above the national average.

"We try to do things the right way," Paterno said.

Once, when asked whether he would pursue a career in politics, Paterno famously responded: "What . . . and leave college coaching to the Switzers and Sherrills?"

Paterno certainly had his own critics. They derided his sanctimonious "St. Joe" image, contending that, at his core, the hypercompetitive coach was no better than those peers for whom he so often had expressed contempt.

"People inside college football and outside, like me, felt there was a huge dose of hypocrisy in his ramblings about athletics and academics," Murray Sperber, the author of several books about college sports' excesses, once said in an interview.

"Sure, he wanted real students on his team. Every coach does. But most of all, like every coach, he wanted to win. He belongs in the same sentence as [Knute] Rockne and Bear Bryant, and if you read their lives, you will see that they also were totally obsessed characters who wanted, above all, to win."

While no Paterno team ever earned NCAA penalties, off-the-field incidents in the last decade have tarnished the program's squeaky-clean reputation. There was a rape accusation, a campus brawl that caused arrests, other incidents that drew police attention. Now, there are questions about what else may have been kept from public view.

Former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was charged last week with 40 criminal counts of molesting eight young boys between 1994 and 2009 through his charitable foundation for at-risk youths, The Second Mile. Sandusky is free on bail and has a Dec. 7 court hearing.

Penn State's athletic director, Tim Curley, and a vice president, Gary Schultz, were charged Monday with lying to the grand jury and failing to notify authorities after an eyewitness reported a 2002 assault. Curley requested to be placed on administrative leave so he could devote time to his defense, and the school announced Schultz would go back into retirement. The leadership of Penn State president Graham Spanier quickly was called into question.

Paterno told a grand jury he received a report of sexual activity between Sandusky and a 10-year-old boy in a shower in the football complex. He told Curley and Schultz of it, he testified. The police were never notified. Sandusky retained access to the football complex.

"I have come to work every day for the last 61 years with one clear goal in mind: to serve the best interests of this university and the young men who have been entrusted to my care. I have the same goal today," Paterno said Wednesday in a statement. "That's why I have decided to announce my retirement effective at the end of this season."

Grand celebration

For years, even decades, Paterno retirement stories - which included his ritual scoffing at the idea - had been a yearly staple. A typical headline from 1999: "Paterno says retirement is just out of the question."

"If you think that I am going to back out of it because I am intimidated, you are wrong," he said as Penn State struggled in 2004. "If you think I am going to stay when I think I am not doing a good job, you are wrong. Those things have to develop and have to evolve. Right now, I think we can get this thing done and do a good job.

"I have said that before. I don't want to hang around here and pull Penn State down. . . . I could walk out of this thing. I could call and tell you today I am going. What does it mean to me? It doesn't mean a thing to me. What impact does it have on the program, the coaches, and is it the best thing for Penn State? They are the things that I think about all the time. It has nothing to do with Joe Paterno."

If the hope of Paterno's friends and fans was that his retirement would be cause for a grand celebration, that is gone now, as Paterno leaves under a cloud that will stick to the first paragraph of his obituary - his very departure taken out of his hands.


Contact Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489, mjensen@phillynews.com, or @Jensenoffcampus on Twitter.

Inquirer staff writers Joe Juliano and Ray Parrillo contributed to this article.

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