Joe Paterno, the legendary coach who built the Penn State Nittany Lions football program from scratch into a national power, the winningest coach in NCAA Division 1 history, and a national hero for his traditional values and humble manner, has died at the age of 85.
Paterno passed away at the hospital this morning, his family announced. “It is with great sadness that we announce that Joe Paterno passed away earlier today. His loss leaves a void in our lives that will never be filled,” Paterno’s family said in a statement.
Paterno coached the Nittany Lions for 46 years, starting in 1966 after 16 years as assistant coach. His legacy includes a record 409 victories at the Division 1 level, two national championships and five undefeated-and-untied seasons. And he prided himself on the consistent high graduation rates among his players.
But the legendary coach was unceremoniously fired with a late-night phone call from the Board of Trustees on November 9, just days after the sex scandal involving former assistant Jerry Sandusky cost two top Penn State officials their jobs, and became a national scandal. Questions also quickly surrounded how much Paterno knew, and whether he did enough to protect children and punish Sandusky after learning of allegations.
Paterno’s death Sunday followed a wild night for media reports that he had died Saturday.
In a statement last night to the Associated Press, family spokesman Dan McGinn said, “Over the last few days, Joe Paterno has experienced further health complications. His doctors have now characterized his status as serious. His family will have no comment on the situation and asks that their privacy be respected during this difficult time.’’
The 85-year-old former coach was battling lung cancer, which was diagnosed in November, days after Paterno was he was fired. He had been in the hospital since Jan. 13 for what his family had called minor complications from cancer treatments, and was also hospitalized for a broken pelvis.
Last night, crowds of students and others gathered around the JoePa statue in State College, a silent vigil for the most part in marked contrast to the riot on the night of his firing.
Paterno’s son, Jay, tweeted, “Drove by students at the Joe statue. Just told my Dad about all the love & support–inspiring him.’’
Those tweets came in response to a media frenzy of premature reporting, which started with tweets sent out by a student-run Penn State news outfit called Onward State. The editor who sent those premature tweets resigned.
Paterno’s death, now confirmed, brings to an end a remarkable life and career, one which only in its very final act became what the Washington Post is calling this morning “one of the most tragic narratives in modern athletic history.”