Legendary Penn State coach Joe Paterno dies

Joe Paterno, who built a legacy through 46 celebrated years as head football coach at Penn State only to see it shaken by a child-abuse scandal involving a longtime associate, has died of complications from lung cancer. He was 85.

His family released a statement Sunday morning to announce his death.

"He fought hard until the end, stayed positive, thought only of others and constantly reminded everyone of how blessed his life had been," the statement said. "He was a man devoted to his family, his university, his players and his community."

Paterno's son, Scott, announced Nov. 18 that his father was being treated for lung cancer, which was diagnosed in mid-November during a follow-up visit for a bronchial illness.

Paterno had been in the hospital since Jan. 13, battling the effects of the cancer and a broken pelvis.

He was diagnosed with cancer shortly after he was fired from Penn State in November during the controversy over the actions of former assistant Jerry Sandusky.

Sandusky, a longtime defensive coordinator who was on Paterno's staff in two national title seasons, was arrested Nov. 5 and ultimately charged with sexually abusing 10 boys during 15 years.

Last week, Paterno gave his first public comments since his firing, and said that he was "shocked and saddened" by the extent of the scandal.

He gave the interview to Washington Post reporter Sally Jenkins, who described him as "wracked by radiation and chemotherapy, in a wheelchair with a broken pelvis."

Part of the interview was conducted at Paterno's bedside in his home because he had grown so weak.

During 46 seasons his teams won a record 409 games, two national championships, finished five seasons unbeaten, and placed among the nation's top 25 teams 35 times. His 24 victories in bowl games are the most of any coach in history. He is the only coach to have won the Rose, Sugar, Orange, Cotton and Fiesta bowl games.

More than 250 of the players he coached went on to the NFL.

Paterno attended Brooklyn Preparatory School before attending Brown University, where he played quarterback and cornerback.

While he originally had planned to become a lawyer, and was accepted to Boston University Law School, Paterno deferred his enrollment there after Rip Engle, Brown's football coach, accepted the head coach job at Penn State in 1950 and invited Paterno to join him there as assistant coach.

Paterno intended to stay in the Penn State job for a year; instead, he not only stayed, but went on to become Penn State's head coach in 1966. He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2006, but postponed his induction until the following year after a sideline injury kept him from traveling to New York City for the ceremony.

Penn State alum Sara Weber, a 1989 graduate of the school who lives in Massapequa, said that "Penn State should be proud" of Paterno's work as coach and campus leader.

"Everybody at that school has felt the effect of Joe Paterno, throughout all the decades," she said.

Weber, who as a student helped manage the school's ice hockey team, then still a club-level sport, remembered a conversation she once had with the famous football coach, who stopped her outside the rink: "He was curious to know how they were doing," she said. "He was interested in everything going on at the school: he genuinely cared."

Weber, a director of the Long Island Chapter of the school's alumni association, worried that Paterno's legacy would be complicated by the Sandusky scandal.

"He made a mistake," she said. "It's going to be hard that people will remember what happened in the last couple months" more than what Paterno accomplished over his whole career. "But hopefully, people will get past that and remember a lot of great things he did for the school, not taking anything away from the people who were allegedly abused."

Huntington resident Jerry Dano, 73, a retired electrical engineer and director of the Alumni Club's Long Island chapter who graduated in 1959, first saw Paterno when he was an assistant coach. "He was the heir apparent then," Dano said. And though Paterno did not then draw attention to himself on the sidelines, Dano said, "he got into it with his heart, mind, body and soul."

In an age of seven-figure salaries for top coaches, Dano noted that Paterno had been a prominent donor to the school, even endowing a library. Paterno and his wife, Sue, have donated more than $4 million to Penn State.

The coach's firing had been handled "horribly," he said.

Paterno lived with his wife in a house near campus, and maintained a listing in the phone book.

He was fiercely supported by students, who demonstrated their anger after his dismissal. Even over the weekend, students had held a vigil by his statue on campus.

But public opinion about him was much different and moved so swiftly that the school's board of trustees fired him in a terse phone conversation. A coach who had established his legacy by making bold and firm decisions was held accountable for not having acted decisively when told by graduate assistant Mike McQueary that he had seen Sandusky performing sex acts on a boy in the shower.

"I didn't know exactly how to handle it, and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was," Paterno said in The Washington Post interview. "So I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did. It didn't work out that way.

Referring specifically to McQueary, Paterno said, "You know, he didn't want to get specific. 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.

"I called my superiors and I said, 'Hey, we got a problem I think. Would you guys look into it?' Because I didn't know, you know . . . I had never had to deal with something like that. And I didn't feel adequate."

In a statement, the Penn State board of trustees and university president Rodney Erickson called Paterno "a great man who made us a greater university."

"His dedication to ensuring his players were successful both on the field and in life is legendary and his commitment to education is unmatched in college football. His life, work and generosity will be remembered always," the statement said.

Former Penn State star Lydell Mitchell visited Joe Paterno about a week and a half ago, hoping to get just a moment with his ailing coach.

After an emotional hour and a half, Mitchell said goodbye and told Paterno that he would always have the support of his players.

"I said, 'Hey, man, we love you.' We'll fight the fight for him," Mitchell said Sunday after Paterno died at age 85.

Mitchell says Paterno's legacy "will always be intact because we won't let Joe's legacy die."

Paterno's death, coming less than three months after he was ousted, prompted Mickey Schuler, who played tight end for Penn State from 1975 to 1977, to say: "It's just sad because I think he died from other things than lung cancer."

Paterno is survived by his wife, a former Penn State student whom he married 50 years ago; five children and 17 grandchildren.

With Nicholas Spangler, Jennifer Barrios and The Associated Press

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