On October 29, 2011, Joe Paterno led Penn State to a 10-7 victory over Illinois, making him the winningest coach in major college football history with his 409th win. After the win, the Nittany Lions were 8-1 and in first place in the Big Ten, but the joy in Happy Valley wouldn’t last long. The very next week, details of a scandal emerged, a scandal so large that it shook the foundations of college football to its very core and caused a sports icon to topple.
For 46 years, Joe Paterno led the Penn State football program with pure class and dignity. His “grand experiment,” which demanded that his players succeed not only on the field but in the classroom as well, helped make Penn State into one of the finest academic institutions in the United States. He built the Nittany Lion football program around the motto “Success with Honor,” and there’s no doubt that he was the perfect example of it. JoePa was a man that became something more — he was nothing short of an icon, and all of Happy Valley loved him.
But a scandal involving his former defensive coordinator and heir apparent Jerry Sandusky, who has been accused of committing acts that are unimaginably horrific, led to Paterno’s downfall and proved that even someone as legendary as JoePa is only human.
The scandal caused an upheaval that led to turmoil all throughout State College, and this was only increased on November 9, 2011, when John Surma, the vice chairman of Penn State’s board of trustees, announced what at one time seemed unthinkable; Joe Paterno would no longer be the head football coach at Penn State University. Many across the nation felt this was a necessary move, but it sparked riots by students across the university’s campus. This was a low point in Paterno’s life, but it ended up being only the beginning of his ultimate downfall.
Just a week after his ouster, Paterno was diagnosed with what was called a “treatable form of lung cancer,” but it ended up being too much for the 85-year-old. The cancer caused JoePa to be reduced to a frail old man, and it eventually caused his death on January 22, 2012.
Now that Joe Paterno has passed, I think it’s a good time to evaluate his entire life’s body of work, not just the tumultuous final two months. Joe Paterno was quite simply the greatest coach in the history of college football, and I rank him behind only John Wooden and Vince Lombardi on a list of greatest coaches in the history of sports.
He influenced countless amounts of people throughout his spectacular life, and there’s probably not a single coach in any sport that was more beloved by his former players than Paterno. And let’s not forget how much he meant to the university where he coached for more than 60 years.
He gave back so much to Penn State, and was as loyal as a person could be to his university. He could’ve been the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, but he turned it down and they hired Chuck Noll instead. He was offered the head coaching job at Michigan, he turned it down and they hired Bo Schembechler instead. He could’ve been the head coach and part owner of the New England Patriots, but he chose to stay in State College. He stayed at Penn State and won 409 games, two national championships (and was screwed over by the polls a few other times), and led the Nittany Lions to 37 bowl games and he won 24 of those.
Don’t get me wrong, Paterno did fail to stop Sandusky when he had the chance, but all the positive things he did during his life far outweighed the negatives. His legacy should be that of a man who influenced legions of players and fans who loved him unconditionally to the day he died, despite everything that happened in the last couple months of his life. Joe Paterno was an icon, a legend, a great man and the greatest coach in the long and storied history of college football.