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His teams wore famously outdated uniforms, eventually adorned by a Nike swoosh.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.
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 might 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.”
While no Paterno team ever earned NCAA penalties, off-the-field incidents in the past 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 might 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.
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.