Legendary football coach Joe Paterno died this morning in State College, Pa., at age 85, his family announced.
He was diagnosed with lung cancer in November, only days after Penn State’s board of trustees fired the legendary coach in the wake of the arrest of his former defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, on multiple felony counts of sexual abuse of boys.
Paterno was not implicated in a grand jury’s indictment of Sandusky but was criticized for not acting more aggressively in 2002 after a graduate assistant informed Paterno he saw Sandusky sexually molest a boy in a locker room shower at Penn State. Paterno had fulfilled his legal obligation by passing the information on to his superior, athletic director Tim Curley.
Paterno’s inglorious exit shocked a community that watched him rise from a young assistant to become a national icon. His Coke-bottle eyeglasses and rolled-up pant legs came to embody the school’s victories-with-virtue persona.
The coach was so beloved in State College that full-size cardboard cutouts of him were common sights around town. Even an ice cream flavor, “Peachy Paterno,” was named after him.
In college football’s fraternity, he was known simply as “JoePa.”
It’s ironic that a man who, with his “Grand Experiment,” emphasized the importance of impeccable character and academic achievement alongside spectacular sport is destined to be eulogized with references to one of the worst scandals in college football history. In 1973, JoePa said in a commencement address that “Success without honor is an unseasoned dish.” Perhaps, in years to come, the memory of Paterno’s legendary coaching approach will overshadow the memory of the scandal that ended his career, but, for now, the revelations of the past year seem to have stripped the honor from much of his success.
Still, as Paterno also liked to say, quoting Robert Browning, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” Paterno’s reach was undoubtedly great. Yet, remarkably, his grasp was nearly commensurate with it. The coach’s record-breaking 409 career victories speaks to his persistent, almost single-minded drive for excellence and his uncanny ability to capture it.