Penn State’s Joe Paterno, the winningest coach in major college football history, who was fired in November over a child sexual abuse scandal involving an assistant that rocked America, died on Sunday of lung cancer. He was 85.
Paterno won adoration from fans of the highly successful and profitable Penn State football program and they unleashed invective at the university board of trustees, who fired him unceremoniously after 46 years as head coach, tarnishing his outsized legacy.
Equally outraged were his critics and advocates for victims of sexual abuse, who faulted Paterno for his relative inaction upon hearing an accusation that former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky had sexually abused a young boy in the Penn State football showers in 2002.
Paterno told university officials but not police, opening him to criticism that he protected an accused child molester for nine years.
Sandusky, 67, who has maintained his innocence, faces 52 criminal counts accusing him of sexually abusing 10 boys over 15 years, using his position as head of The Second Mile, a charity dedicated to helping troubled children, to find his victims. The court placed him under house arrest.
Waves of mourners descended on a makeshift shrine to Paterno outside the university’s Beaver Stadium. They draped an American flag on a statue of Paterno and wrapped its neck with a Penn State scarf.
Sobbing at the statue’s feet was Dana Gordon, a 1982 graduate who blamed the school’s board of trustees for hastening Paterno’s death by firing him in a “callous way.”
“The way the board treated him took a lot of the fight out of him,” Gordon said.
Later, a few thousand mourners braved freezing cold temperatures to attend a vigil. Many held candles while the football team’s marching band played somber music, including “Amazing Grace.”
“I am not only a better player because of him, but also a better person as well,” Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin said in a ceremony that made only vague references to the scandal. “This guy was not only a football coach. He was also a father, a husband, and I consider him a friend.”
The scandal raised questions about the measures the university took to protect Sandusky and a football program that Forbes magazine estimated made a profit of $53 million in 2010, especially since accusations against him first surfaced in 1998.
At that time a university police detective told Sandusky to stop showering naked with boys but stopped short of bringing criminal charges.
One of the biggest scandals in college sports history, it provoked a national discussion about pedophilia in the same way charges involving Roman Catholic priests did years earlier.
The matter also drew impassioned arguments about the balance between protecting the young and the rights of criminal defendants, who are presumed innocent until proven guilty.
“I hope his passing and the controversy surrounding Sandusky will deter other people, especially powerful people, from covering up child sex crimes,” said David Clohessy, director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a support group.
“Even decades of professional achievement should not obscure dreadfully reckless and callous inaction that results in child sex crimes,” Clohessy said.
Sandusky issued a statement sending condolences to the Paterno family but did not mention the investigation.
“Nobody did more for the academic reputation of Penn State than Joe Paterno. He maintained a high standard in a very difficult profession,” Sandusky said.
Paterno won a reputation for making sure his players graduated, and one of the program’s mottos was “Success With Honor.”
Paterno’s downfall was spectacular. For decades he was a symbol of vitality who patrolled the Penn State sidelines with unchallenged authority, easily recognizable by his thick eyeglasses and jet-black hair that grayed a little in his later years. His two national championships, in 1982 and 1986, won him enduring loyalty from fans who affectionately called him “JoePa.”
In the end, he was confined to a wheelchair upon breaking his hip in a fall one month after being fired, and he wore a wig after losing his hair to chemotherapy, according to the Washington Post, which interviewed Paterno about a week before his death.
Paterno was surrounded by family when he died 9:25 a.m. on Sunday of metastatic small cell carcinoma of the lung, Mount Nittany Medical Center said in a statement.