We continue to pay our respects to Joe Paterno, who passed away Sunday. The following was submitted by Mike Prince, of Montgomery Media. If you would like to submit your own thoughts for a guest post, please contact us with your thoughts.
It wasn’t supposed to end like this. After nearly half a century of being the face of an entire university, the final days in the life of an icon and a hero for many wasn’t supposed to be tainted.
All the way back in 1950, Joseph Vincent Paterno, at the age of 23, arrived in State College and began what eventually turned into the most legendary and celebrated coaching career in college football history.
And on Sunday morning, over 61 years after arriving, 74 days after his football career ended and just hours after Penn State’s most important figure passed away at the age of 85 due to complications from lung cancer, the man known simply as “JoePa” has still never left.
This was not in the script for the final days of Paterno’s life. After so many years of head coaching, graduating student-athletes, good deeds and “doing what’s best” for anything and everything Penn State, the final days of Paterno’s life were supposed to be celebrated.
He became an icon, the most beloved figure Penn State had ever seen. He was known for his thick, square glasses, his rolled up pants and his black shoes. He was known for his distinct coaching style, his Brooklyn accent, his incredible emphasis on education and for turning a seemingly tiny football program into one of the greatest traditions in sports history.
So, how did JoePa’s legacy go downhill so fast? Why are people judging an entire book – a long one at that – by the final chapter?
People are entitled to believe what they want about Joe Paterno. They can speculate on what he did, what he didn’t do and what he should’ve done during a time so dark and ugly, it can’t even be put into words. But in the wake of an icon’s passing, this is a time to celebrate the man who was Penn State. This is a time for those who looked up to Paterno for so long to mourn a man whose name was never attached to the word “wrong” until just months before his passing.
“I love Penn State. I love you guys. I love my players. I have had great players. And they can say what they about the fact that I did this or that I did that. I got more from them than they ever got from me. It has been a great, great trip. Thanks.”
Joe Paterno, as modest as always, once spoke those words while speaking to Penn State students. Paterno may have gotten more out of those he loved than anybody could have ever imagined, but it’s impossible to underestimate how much more they got from him.
JoePa was unequivocally larger than just a football coach. For nearly his entire time at Penn State, he was the ultimate role model – a man who represented good, not evil. A man who played a very important role for so many. A man who football players wanted to play for. A man who students wanted to look up to.
And as Paterno laid in Mount Nittany Hospital in State College, just minutes from his house and just minutes from Beaver Stadium, students visited the bronze JoePa statue and laid out flowers, lit candles and honored a man they had grown to love and respect for so many years.
The “tarnished” legacy of the 46-year head coach of the Penn State football team was not existent at this time. The scars which had been left on Paterno, the program and the university were put aside, if not just for a short time.
“With all of the events that took place, and all the craziness which was going on, emotions were running high,” said Kevin Conlin, a center at Penn State from 1993-97 and the current Abington High School defensive coordinator who played his high school football at La Salle. “With the various reports, emotions were high and then low and when it finally hit on Sunday morning, you knew it was a reality. My brother got a message from Jay (Paterno) and he then texted me. This is a tough time for anyone involved with the university.”
There had been grim reports stemming from Penn State which had been controlling the college football world since early November. Soon after Paterno was fired by the school’s Board of Trustees, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. His passing was inevitable. It wasn’t hard to see it coming, but that doesn’t mean that people were ready for it to happen.
But it also could’ve been for the best. Paterno was suffering. His health had declined over the years and there is no doubt that the last few months were his most stressful. It was the end of an era and the time to move forward with a new day at Penn State.
“Personally, I never met him, but the people I know who were coached by him or worked with him hold him in the highest regard as a man, a coach and as a member of the Penn State community,” said John Butler, the new Penn State secondary coach and former La Salle College High School football star. “The lives that he touched and the lessons he preached carry over into their lives every day. If you look at the players he graduated, you immediately see the effect he had on all of them. He will be a man that will be forever missed by those he came in contact with. Every man dies, but not every man truly lives. Joe gave his life to Penn State, and it is a much better place because of him.”
In his time at Penn State, Paterno finished with an FBS record 409 career wins, as well as 24 bowl victories, also a record for any single coach in college football history. He was a three-time winner of the Walter Camp and Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year awards and helped the Nittany Lions to five undefeated seasons and two national championships (1982, ’86), all while prioritizing academics and proper behavior in the classroom.
He was almost larger than life. But in the end, the man who, along with his wife, Sue, donated over $4 million to Penn State University, proved to be human. He proved to be a man who makes mistakes, like everybody does, every single day. Whether he turned a blind eye due to naivety – or whether it was something else – may never be known for sure.
But one thing that is for sure – the man they call JoePa never meant for anyone to get hurt.
A statement from the Paterno family said it best:
“His loss leaves a void in our lives that will never be filled. He dies as he lived. He fought hard until the end, stayed positive. Thought only of others and constantly reminded everyone of how blessed his life had been. His ambitions were far reaching, but he never believed he had to leave this Happy Valley to achieve them. He was a man devoted to his family, his university, his players and his community.”
The only less-than-perfect thing which could be said about that statement is that the last several words aren’t even needed. In fact, they’re damn near redundant. The university was Paterno’s family. The players were his family. The community was his family.
Joe Paterno was Penn State. And he will always be Penn State, whether some people want to admit that or not. Some say that JoePa died of a broken heart.
Rest in peace, Joe.
12.21.26 – 1.22.12.