Joe Paterno has died. His family confirmed his passing in a press statement released Sunday morning. Paterno succumbed to lung cancer, a condition for which he was being treated. He died at the age of 85—a legend to many Penn State alumni. According to the family statement:
“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.”
To be sure, the legacy that survives Joe Paterno’s death will never be viewed as tarnished by those who loved and adored him the most. They will remember him for his victories in sport, his fortitude and staying power as a coach. Paterno won more games than any other major football coach. On October 29, 2011, he surpassed Eddie Robinson’s record for the most Division I wins (409). There were seasons that his team went entirely undefeated. But, he never left college coaching; he spent 46 years as head coach of the Pennsylvania State University football team, an organization whose rise in prominence is credited with lifting the university’s academic profile.
In the end, however, Joe Paterno’s impressive record may be tainted not by what he did, but rather what he failed to do.
In recent months, Paterno’s stellar reputation became marred by the investigation into allegations of rampant child sexual abuse by his former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky. Sandusky, who was arrested on more than 40 counts of child sexual abuse, coached alongside Paterno for decades until retiring in 1999. During their time coaching together, Paterno and Sandusky won national victories; they were a dynamic pair. But, it is also during that time that Sandusky is alleged to have brought along boys to “away games” and later sodomized and raped them in hotel rooms.
The allegation that brought down the Penn State football team and the university’s leadership, including Graham Spanier, the former president, involves an eyewitness account of an alleged locker-room rape in 2002. It was that year that Sandusky is alleged to have brutally raped a 10-year-old boy in the football locker-room shower. According to the grand jury presentment, prior to that time, there was a Penn State police investigation about another shower incident in the men’s locker room involving Sandusky and a little boy.
Joe Paterno acknowledged to a Pennsylvania grand jury that Mike McQueary (then a graduate student) informed him about witnessing Sandusky rape a little boy. For his part, Paterno relayed this information to his immediate supervisors. But, was that enough? The matter was handled “in-house,” which is common for football team infractions. But, this was different. A credible eye-witness watched a child be raped by one of Penn State’s own. Local police were never called.
In the wake of demands for Paterno’s firing, thousands of Penn State alumni and students came to his defense, noting that he spoke to supervisors, which was all that university rules seemed to require. But others wondered why Paterno—a man known for his integrity, leadership, and defying university administrators—didn’t do more. Within days, Joe Paterno agreed, because it was a horrific tragedy—not for the football team, but the child victims of Sandusky’s sexual abuse.
Joe Paterno resigned on November 9, 2011, rather than be fired from the institution he loved. In his letter of resignation, he said, “It is one of the great sorrows of my life…I wish I had done more.”