Joe Paterno dies at 85; transformed Penn State into football power
The Ivy League-educated coach's career ended mired in scandal less than two weeks after he recorded his 409th career victory, a major-college football record.
Coach Joe Paterno leads his Penn State team onto the field in 2004 for a game against Akron in State College, Pa. (Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press / March 13, 2014)
Paterno postponed law school at Boston University to give coaching a try. He initially hated State College and told Engle he wouldn't return for a second season. "I'm going to go nuts in this hick town!" Paterno proclaimed.
Paterno advanced quickly on Engle's staff — "a brazen young man," one assistant said of him — taking on more and more responsibility. He used an offer from Yale in the early 1960s to leverage assurance he would succeed Engle. When Engle retired in 1965, Paterno got his Penn State job. He was 38.
He staggered into head coaching in 1966 by losing three of his first five games. His first team finished 5-5, and he opened the 1967 season with a loss to Navy.
"I wondered whether I really had it," he said of his abilities.
After a loss to UCLA on Oct. 7, 1967, Penn State went 31 straight games without a defeat.
It was during this time that Paterno went public with his "Grand Experiment" idea that emphasized academics.
"Everyone assumes if you have a great football team, there have been some sacrifices made in the area of standards," he told the Philadelphia Daily News.
Some would view the notion as holier than thou. Yet while Penn State had its share of off-the-field problems, the school never incurred major NCAA violations on Paterno's watch.
Earning football respect, though, was a battle Paterno waged for years.
His teams in 1968 and 1969 went 11-0 but finished second both seasons in the Associated Press poll.
Penn State, which played as an independent until 1993, was penalized by pollsters for facing inferior competition.
Paterno was a strong playoff proponent, and his frustration may have influenced him in 1972 to consider a $1.4-million offer to coach the NFL's New England Patriots. He accepted in principle before changing his mind.
He would remark at a 1973 commencement address, "Money alone will not make you happy. Success without honor is an unseasoned dish."
Paterno's frustration continued in 1973 when his 12-0 team ended up fifth in both major polls, the Associated Press and UPI. He bought his players championship rings and continued to press for a playoff.
His quest for a national title was finally realized in the 1982 season when a Penn State win over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl pushed the Nittany Lions to No. 1. Paterno claimed his second national title four years later after a win over Miami in the Fiesta Bowl.
In 1993, after more than 100 years as an independent, Penn State became the 11th member of the Big Ten Conference.
In 1994, Penn State capped a 12-0 season with a Rose Bowl win over Oregon, but the Nittany Lions ended up No. 2 behind Nebraska in both the Associated Press and USA Today/CNN polls.
Competing in the Big Ten would become increasingly difficult.
Penn State endured four losing seasons in a five-year span beginning in 2000, prompting calls by some for Paterno to retire. There were websites devoted to his departure, but Paterno vowed to coach as long as his health allowed.
Paterno exacted revenge on detractors when his 2005 team finished 11-1 and defeated Florida State in the Orange Bowl.
His survivors include his wife, Sue, whom he married in 1962, and children Diana, Mary, David, Jay and Scott — all Penn State graduates — and 17 grandchildren.