At the pinnacle of his career Joe Paterno was the winningest coach in the history of collegiate football.
As head coach at Pennsylvania State University over 46 seasons between 1966 through 2011, Paterno led his team, the Nittany Lions, to 37 bowl appearances with 24 wins. In October 2011 Paterno, or “Joe Pa” as he was lovingly referred to at Penn State, set a record when the college defeated Illinois, a victory marking Paterno’s 409 career win. It placed him at the top of the list of most career wins for a Division I coach.
Less than two weeks later Paterno was fired from his position, his reputation in question and his legacy unravelling over what he did or did not know in relation to the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal that was dominating news headlines. The team’s defensive coordinator, Sandusky was arrested and charged with 52 counts of sexual abuse of young boys over a 15-year period from 1994 to 2009.
Those two weeks form the basis of the new drama, Paterno, airing April 7th with Academy Award-winner Al Pacino in the titular role and directed by Barry Levinson (The Wizard of Lies, You Don’t Know Jack).
Born December 21, 1926, in Brooklyn, New York, Joseph Paterno became assistant coach at Penn State after graduating from Brown University in 1950. He worked under his former Brown coach Charles “Rip” Engle and after 16 years as Engle's assistant, Paterno succeeded him in 1966. Paterno led Penn State to consecutive undefeated seasons in 1968 and 1969 and undefeated seasons in 1973, 1986 and 1994.
Paterno was the first coach to win all four of the major bowls — Rose, Orange, Fiesta, and Sugar and saw almost 300 of his former charges go on to NFL success. He turned down an offer to coach professional football with the New England Patriots in 1973 and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2006.
During his 61-year tenure at Penn State he became an icon, rising to become the face and embodiment of what the university stood for. “Penn State won because [Paterno] wanted to recruit people with the same values he had,” Charlie Pittman, who played running back at Penn State from 1967-69, told Fox Sports in 2012. “People who wanted to compete at the highest level and people who wanted to participate and truly enjoy college, not just to play football.”
Paterno called it his “Grand Experiment” and it brought the college dominance and respect on and off the field, with commentators and alumni lionizing the coach. A beloved figure at Penn State, Paterno was known as much for his trademark bottle-thick, square glasses as for his leadership skills. In 2000 a new library bearing his name was opened on campus. Over decades Paterno also supported the school through donations exceeding $4 million.
In 1962 he married Suzanne Pohland whom he met when she was a student at Penn State. The couple had five children together, all of whom would go on to graduate from the university.
“For me, a kid from Brooklyn, whose grandfather was an immigrant, to do something like this really means a lot to me,” Paterno said at a ceremony following his October 29, 2011 record-breaking 409 win.
He would enjoy the career milestone for just one week.
On November 5th the investigation into the allegations against Sandusky became public. One day later, Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley vacated his post. Paterno, coming under increasing criticism about what he did or did not know regarding Sandusky, released a statement on November 9th announcing his retirement at the end of the 2011 season. “This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more,” the statement read.
His bid to control his exit from the school he so loved was short-lived. Hours after the release of his statement the Penn State Board of Trustees announced that it had fired both the school president, Graham Spanier, and Paterno. The key player in Penn State’s now legendary football program was out.
To show support for their adored Joe Pa, thousands of students congregated outside the school’s administration building the night of his firing. Frustrated, the throng moved to downtown State College, PA chanting the former coach’s name, dismantling light posts and overturning a television news van. “I am disappointed with the Board of Trustee’s decision, but I have to accept it,” Paterno said in a statement following the announcement of his ousting.
Exactly how aware was Paterno of Sandusky’s activities? In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, Paterno director Levinson says that uncertainty is what underscores the biopic.
“I think we show all of the aspects of it, and I think that that's what makes it compelling because, on one hand, you say, ‘Well, look, he knew about that,’ and on another, you say, ‘Well, maybe he didn't know about that’.” According to an FBI investigation, Paterno had concealed information about the abuse committed by his assistant coach.
Whether his legacy could have been recast over time remains unknown. After leaving Penn State, Paterno began suffering from health problems and was diagnosed with lung cancer in late 2011. His spectacular fall from grace would skew the many obituaries written about him when, on January 22, 2012, Paterno succumbed to his illness and died at age 85.
In October 2012, Sandusky was sentenced to serve 30 to 60 years in prison for his crimes. The day before his sentencing hearing, Sandusky continued to insist his innocence in the case.
In the hours following the announcement of his firing on November 9, 2011, Paterno emerged from his home, accompanied by his wife, to face a crowd of shocked students and reporters. “I want to say hello to all these great students who I love. Hey, you guys are great. All of ya. When I say guys, you know what I mean: You know I mean girls, too,” Paterno said when asked why he had decided to address the crowd.
“I’m out of it, maybe. A phone call put me out of it. We’ll go from there. Thanks, thanks for coming,” he continued before he and his wife moved to go back inside.
Paterno turned back a final time. “Hey, one thing,” he added. “Pray a little bit for those victims.”