Joe Paterno, who built a legacy through 46 celebrated years as head football coach at Penn State University only to see it shaken by a child sex abuse scandal involving a longtime top assistant coach, has died of complications from lung cancer. He was 85.
"He fought hard until the end, stayed positive, thought only of others and constantly reminded everyone of how blessed his life had been," his family said in a statement announcing his death Sunday. "He was a man devoted to his family, his university, his players and his community."
Paterno's son, Scott, said on 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 died at Mount Nittany Medical Center, the hospital in State College, Penn., where he had been since Jan. 13, battling the cancer and a broken pelvis.
The cancer diagnosis came shortly after he was fired from Penn State in November during the controversy over the actions of former assistant Jerry Sandusky, a longtime defensive coordinator who was on Paterno's staff in two national title seasons. Sandusky 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, telling The Washington Post that he was "shocked and saddened" by the extent of the scandal.
"Nobody will be able to take away the memories we all shared of a great man, his family, and all the wonderful people who were a part of his life," Sandusky said in a statement he issued Sunday.
Paterno came to epitomize Penn State, the tree-lined university set amid the hills of Central Pennsylvania in an area commonly known as "Happy Valley." He and his wife, Sue, donated more than $4 million to the university. A statue of the coach, with his right hand pointed skyward, sits outside Beaver Stadium, where the football team plays its home games.
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. 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. Yet he held his players to some of the highest academic expectations in college football, boasting an 89 percent graduation rate.
Former Jets linebacker and ESPN commentator Greg Buttle, a Northport resident who played for Paterno in the mid-1970s, recalled a coach whose interest in his players extended far off the playing field.
Paterno "never let us think for one minute that we were any better or any more special than any part of the student body or any teacher," Buttle said. "The only difference for him was his expectations of us: He expected more. More character, more leadership."
Paterno attended Brooklyn Preparatory School before going to 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 after Rip Engle, Brown's football coach, accepted the head coaching job at Penn State in 1950 and invited Paterno to join him as assistant coach.
Paterno went on to become Penn State's head coach in 1966.
Sara Weber, a 1989 Penn State graduate who lives in Massapequa, said the school "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, 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. "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, she said.
Paterno lived with his wife in a house near campus and maintained a publicly listed phone number.
He was fiercely supported by students, who demonstrated their anger after his dismissal, including a vigil near his statue on campus.
But public anger 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 locker room shower.
"I didn't know exactly how to handle it . . ." 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."
In a statement Sunday, the Penn State board of trustees and new university president Rodney Erickson called Paterno "a great man who made us a greater university."
Paterno is survived by his wife of 50 years; five children and 17 grandchildren.
With Nicholas Spangler, Jennifer Barrios and AP