Joe Paterno gave his life to Pennsylvania State University. His first job after graduating from Brown in 1950 was as an assistant with the Nittany Lions, and he served as a lieutenant for 16 seasons before being promoted to succeed Rip Engle in 1966.
In 45-plus seasons in State College, Paterno won more games than any Division I coach (409), guided the Nittany Lions to national championships in 1982 and 1986, plus undefeated seasons in 1968, 1969, 1973 and 1994, and transformed the Lions from a regional independent into a national powerhouse competing in the Big Ten Conference. During his coaching career at PSU, Beaver Stadium’s capacity more than doubled from just over 46,000 to more than 107,000.
While SMU was given the death penalty in 1987, and Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas A&M, USC and Washington all found themselves facing major NCAA sanctions, Paterno’s program was always held up as a paragon of virtue, of how to win without cheating.
Penn State’s clean-cut image was never more on display than the lead-up to the Fiesta Bowl to determine the 1986 national champion. While the Nittany Lions attended a steak fry in coat and tie, their opponents, the Miami Hurricanes walked out of the dinner wearing combat fatigues. The Lions went on to oust the Hurricanes 14-10 in the ultimate good vs. evil matchup.
But all was not so clean. It turned out Paterno’s trusted chief assistant, Jerry Sandusky, was allegedly using his Second Mile foundation, a charity designed to help at-risk youth, as a cover for sexual abuse, even well after Sandusky retired from coaching in 1999, reaching a low point when former quarterback-turned-assistant coach Mike McQueary supposedly witnessed Sandusky in a shower with a 10-year old boy, yet did not report the incident to authorities.
When Sandusky’s transgressions were revealed in November 2011, Paterno’s empire on Mount Nittany began to crumble. It finally came to a stunning denouement on Nov. 9, when Paterno announced his intended retirement at the end of the season, only to be fired later that night by the university’s Board of Trustees, who also ousted PSU President Graham Spanier.
Paterno will not lose his place in the College Football Hall of Fame, but his legacy will have a far greater stain, the stain of keeping silent when so many boys needed him to speak out the most.