Joe Paterno, the legendary coach whose name became synonymous with Penn State football and who focused on building character and not just wins, died Sunday. He was 85.
The Paterno family released a statement announcing his death Sunday morning. A Mount Nittany Medical Center news release said he died at 9:25 a.m. at the hospital of “metastatic small cell carcinoma of the lung.” He was surrounded by his family, the hospital said, adding that they requested privacy “during this difficult time.”
Paterno’s life ended less than three months after the end of his 61-year career leading the Nittany Lions. University trustees announced Nov. 9 that they were ending his contract as head coach, saying that a change in leadership was needed in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal. Trustees have since said Paterno did not meet his moral obligations when it came to acting on information he received about a former coach who faces charges of sexual abuse of boys.
In his final months, Paterno became caught up in the scandal that brought down a man who had previously seemed nearly unstoppable. Even then, students, alumni and fans rallied around Paterno. On Saturday night and Sunday, that continued as students and alumni gathered at the Paterno statue outside Beaver Stadium to pay their respects.
“It’s like losing a father,” said senior Dan Bogas, wearing a white Penn State T-shirt over a sweatshirt in the frigid air. “He’s been such a great inspiration, not just to the football program and not just to this school.”
Bogas said, when he thinks of Paterno, he’ll remember the older man’s quote: “Believe deep down in your heart that you’re destined to do great things.”
Paterno came to Penn State in 1950 as a graduate assistant and became head coach in 1966. He led the team to two national championships and set a record for winning more games as head coach than anyone in Division I history.
But he became respected and loved for more than his coaching victories. Paterno’s “Grand Experiment” meant having high standards for players off the field and in the classroom as well as when they were playing. The Nittany Lions consistently have had high graduation rates compared with their peers.
Fran Fisher, a longtime Penn State radio announcer who worked with Paterno’s brother, George, said that Joe Paterno “was one of the only people younger than I was who somehow became a role model.”
“He was a great man, he was a good friend, his legacy will go on forever,” Fisher said.
He said Paterno’s legacy is the positive impact he had on all the people he influenced and worked with over the years.
“All I know is I am fortunate to have been associated with him,” Fisher said.
Paterno was a quarterback and defensive back at Brown University, where he studied English literature. While at Penn State, he continued to focus on literature and liberal arts. He and his wife, Sue, donated $4 million to Penn State for the library that now bears their name. They also gave to the College of the Liberal Arts, which has the Paterno Fellows Program for undergraduates.
Mimi Barash Coppersmith, a university trustee emerita, said she arrived in State College the same fall as Paterno. She said he had always been there for her, including when her first husband, Sy Barash, was in the hospital being treated for lung cancer. Paterno brought him a few books to read, and he autographed them so that when Barash shared them with other patients, they would believe he really knew Paterno.
“Joe was a friend of friends,” Coppersmith said. “He really always tried to do something that would help others, both in his profession and private life. That is a gift in life.”
“I believe his legend will never go away. It will be even more significant with each passing day,” Coppersmith said. “The end of that story will always have a sad tone, but in the end he was a giant. No one needs to make excuses for Joe’s life. It was lived well, meaningfully and with purpose.”
Jack Selzer, director of the Fellows Program, said that beyond Paterno’s contributions, he served as an inspiration.
“He gave so much in his life, but it will continue to help students realize their dreams in the future,” Selzer said. “Generations of students will benefit from his inspiration and philanthropy.”
State Sen. Jake Corman, R-Benner Township, said Paterno “was a bigger-than-life individual who was a tremendous role model for all of us, no matter what line of work.”
He said the Paterno way — success with honor, and doing things the right way — is something that should be continued.
“He never wavered from doing things the right way. I think that’s a wonderful legacy for all of us,” Corman said.
Along with those high standards, Paterno was known for the iconic figure he cut, from the New York accent he never lost to his signature glasses.
Anne Riley, a university trustee and daughter of Ridge Riley, the late sports journalist and longtime director of the Penn State Alumni Association, said she knew Paterno from the time she was about 8 years old. Her father and Paterno had spoken about the Grand Experiment, she said.
“It was about the pursuit of excellence,” she said. That meant being “No. 1 in academics and in athletics as a package.”
After hearing the news of his death Sunday, a few students and alumni watched the news coverage on the big-screen television at the HUBRobeson Center on campus, and dozens more placed flowers, candles, T-shirts and more in the expanding memorial around the Paterno statue.
One man placed a blue-beaded rosary in the left hand of the statue, which depicts Paterno running onto the field. Another man placed a blue and white scarf around the statue’s neck.
Later in the afternoon, a second rosary hung from the statue’s left hand, and an American flag was draped over his right arm. A pair of thick, black glasses, football-shaped balloons and homemade signs added to the memorial site. One said “JoePa: 4-Ever The Lion King.”
Stuffed lions, blue and white pom poms and flower bouquets created the memorial at the Paterno statue’s feet. Tears filled students’ eyes and streamed down their faces as they leaned on each other.
Bogas and Scott Knight, also a senior, said Sunday was a “very sad” morning, after watching coverage Saturday of Paterno’s worsening health.
“I’ll remember more than a coach,” Knight said. “That’s what he was known for, but he did a lot of philanthropy. He still donated after he was fired, which says a lot.”
Kimberly Thompson drove more than three hours from her home in Doylestown to visit the statue site Sunday. An educator, she has friends who teach at Penn State.
“He should’ve made it to his last home game,” Thompson said. Paterno was dismissed Nov. 9, before that Nov. 12 football game against Nebraska. “He’s an incredible man.”
Local resident and alumna Beth Ferringer agreed, and said the entire board of trustees should be replaced.
“I don’t know how they sleep at night,” she said. “He held on as long as he could.”
Various Facebook pages seek to honor Paterno. One calls for a final white out for Paterno, encouraging everyone to wear white today. Another recommends renaming Beaver Stadium after Paterno, and another calls for Penn Staters to block the Westboro Baptist Church from Paterno’s funeral.
Jay and Scott Paterno expressed their thanks to supporters via Twitter on Sunday.
“Our family thanks Penn Staters, students & all people for prayers and support for my dad,” Jay tweeted late Sunday morning. “He felt your support in his fight.”
At the HUB, some of those watching the news were in town for Sunday afternoon’s wrestling match between Penn State and Iowa.
Between their hotel and the HUB, Jim Waters said he and his son, Michael, had watched about an hour of Paterno news coverage. The two, from Portland, Ore., sipped coffee before Michael Waters, a freshman wrestler, attended the match as a member of the Penn State team.
“It’s a tremendous loss; a sad loss,” Jim Waters said, adding that he believes Paterno died sooner than he should have because of the circumstances of the scandal. “I’m oddly glad to be here in Happy Valley at this time, just to pay some respects.”
Michael Waters said Paterno symbolized Penn State, including “success with honor.”
Bill Shope, a 1962 civil engineering alumnus, also was in town for the wrestling match, and said he was “very sad,” as were all alumni. He said Paterno set a standard for coaching, especially the way he focused on his players’ academic performance.
“I don’t think he’s let anybody down,” Shope said. “They were his boys and he took care of them.”
Shope, of the Winchester, Va., area, watched the way students reacted positively to Paterno at football games, and remembered a time his son ran into the coach during a recruiting trip in Virginia. The young man called out, “Hey Joe!” and Paterno turned and gave him a smile.
“I think it was the way he related to students,” Shope said of the students’ love for the coach. “He’d always talk to them.”
Shope said he knows he and other alumni look forward to moving on and seeing what new head coach Bill O’Brien will do for the Nittany Lions. He said many alumni, however, think trustees acted too hastily in dismissing Paterno.
“It’s gonna come back to haunt a lot of folks, I think,” he said.
Freshman Mia Rendar and junior Nick Kanapesky said they watched updates this weekend, as Paterno’s health deteriorated and rumors spread that he was near death.
“It’s really great now to see people saying the nice things that he deserves,” Rendar said. “He was a great man.”
The two agreed that the Sandusky scandal won’t define their school.
“I think what Penn State does outweighs everything that’s happened,” Kanapesky said.
Rendar, who described herself as being from a Penn State family, didn’t imagine such events would take place her first year here.
“Penn State has had a lot of ups and downs and we don’t need more of that,” she said of watching social media run wild with rumor this weekend. “It’s not gonna change how I feel about this place and what I love about it.”
Dave Gingher, a Penn State employee who attended the vigil at the statue Saturday, recalled going to football games with his grandparents when Paterno was still relatively new to the head coaching job.
“I grew up here,” he said. “Joe’s been a part of my life since I was a kid. He was such a man of integrity. He did so much more than win football games. He was the brand. He was Penn State.”
Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said the university is “considering appropriate ways to honor the great life and legacy of Joe Paterno. The department of intercollegiate athletics is consulting with members of the Penn State community on the nature and timing of the gathering.”