More than once during my nine seasons writing about Penn State football as a sports reporter for the York (Pa.) Daily Record, I would whine to colleagues, only half-jokingly, that I hoped to not still be doing that when Joe Paterno retired.
The thought of trying to adequately document the history of his accomplishments-and the impact on his players, his school and all of college football-seemed overwhelming.
Paterno's 409 wins in 46 seasons are the most by a football coach at the major college level. That he won with a philosophy he called the Grand Experiment, with academics rather than football having priority, makes it that much more impressive.
He won two mythic national championships, in 1982 and 1986, and could make legitimate claims to at least four others. In addition to his 1986 team, those of 1968, 1969, 1973 and 1994 also were undefeated.
Success in the classroom was equally important. More often than not, coaches treat education as little more than a means to maintain their players' eligibility. Paterno was different. He often reminded his players that almost all of them would not make it to the professional level and that the best way to reach career goals was with a college degree.
Last year Penn State and Stanford tied for 10th among 120 major college football schools with a graduation rate of 87 percent.
Paterno produced 47 academic All-Americans, 37 of whom were first-team selections based on playing time on the field and grade-point averages of at least 3.30 on a 4.00 scale. Penn State had 15 academic All-Americans, more than any other college, in the five-year period from 2006 to 2010.
In nearly every season-opening press conference, Paterno announced the suspension of at least one player because of problems in class. In almost all cases, it seemed, the player eventually returned to the team and completed his eligibility.
Paterno donated more than $4 million to his university, and he helped raise $13.5 million to expand the school library in 1997. The addition is named the Paterno Library in his honor.
It was clear to all of us who covered Penn State that Paterno had no intention of retiring and might never stop coaching. He was routinely asked about it by out-of-town reporters. His answer was always the same.
He'd like to coach for four or five more years, as long as he still enjoyed it and if his health allowed, Paterno would respond. I heard that in 1989, my first year on the Penn State beat. I heard it in 1997, my last year.
Paterno was a Brooklyn kid, a former quarterback at Brown University who, after being accepted to law school at Boston University, decided to become an assistant football coach under Rip Engle at what was then the Pennsylvania State College in 1950.
He never left, replacing Engle as head coach at Penn State University in 1966 and staying until he was fired Nov. 9 by the school's board of trustees amid horrific charges of child sexual abuse involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.
Paterno died Jan. 22 of complications from lung cancer, his legacy permanently stained by the Sandusky scandal and Paterno's failure to do enough to stop it.
Given the standards Paterno set for his players, his apparent lack of alarm upon learning of an incident involving Sandusky and a child in the football complex locker room is incomprehensible.
Sandusky was indicted Nov. 4 on 40 counts of sex crimes against 10 young boys during a 15-year span. Five days later, Paterno was fired. Nine days after that, his family announced that Paterno was being treated for lung cancer.
The program came under fire in 2008 after an ESPN report that 46 players had faced 163 criminal charges beginning in 2002. It was a dramatic reversal from the days when Penn State seemed beyond reproach, with nary a hint of impropriety or NCAA rule violations.
In the 1990s, for instance, the day after a postseason bowl game, Paterno shrugged his shoulders as he recounted a visit to his hotel room that week by the mother of star tailback Ki-Jana Carter, who took a cookie from a plate on a table and got Paterno to wondering whether it was a violation of NCAA rules.
His death is especially sad because his legacy now includes the Sandusky scandal and his weak response.
But as the scandal takes its place as the most significant aspect of his career, it will still be fair to call Paterno the greatest coach and mentor of football players who has ever lived.
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