Joe Paterno Biography

Football Player, Coach, Athlete(1926–2012)
As head football coach at Pennsylvania State University, Joe Paterno was one of the most successful coaches in the history of collegiate football.


Joe Paterno was born December 21, 1926, in Brooklyn, New York. Upon graduation from Brown University in 1950, his former coach, Charles (“Rip”) Engle, became head coach at Pennsylvania State University (Penn State). 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 another undefeated season in 1973.

Early Life

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Joe Paterno was first a star athlete in his own right before spending decades leading others to victory. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II. After the war, Paterno went to Brown University. There he dominated the gridiron as the school's quarterback and led his team to a 8-1 season in his senior year.

After graduating from Brown in 1950, Paterno joined his college coach Rip Engle at Penn State University, serving as the assistant coach. He settled down at Penn State, marrying Suzanne Pohland in 1962. The couple had five children together, all of whom later became graduates of Penn State.

Career Highlights

In 1966, Paterno became the coach for Penn State University. His first season was a draw, with 5 wins and 5 losses, but he worked hard to build up the school's football program. Before long, Paterno racked up impressive scores, including coaching the team to two undefeated regular seasons in 1968 and 1969.

Over the years, Paterno became a beloved figure at the college. He was known for his trademark thick, square-shaped glasses and for his leadership skills. Nicknamed "Joe Pa," Paterno dedicated himself to his team, the Nittany Lions. He even turned down a chance to coach professional football with the New England Patriots in 1973.

Paterno led the Lions to two National Championships—in 1982 and in 1986. In recognition of his contributions to his winning team, he earned the Sportsman of the Year honor from Sports Illustrated in 1986.

In all, Paterno had an impressive record as the Lions' coach. In 46 seasons, he led his team to 37 bowl appearances with 24 wins. In October 2011, Paterno set a record of his own when Penn State defeated Illinois. This victory marked his 409th career win, making him the leader in career wins for Division I coaches.

Sandusky Scandal

Not long after reaching his record-making win with his team, Paterno found himself caught up in a scandal. His former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, was charged with sexually abusing 8 boys during a 15-year period. Paterno had been informed of a possible attack by Sandusky that took place at the university's sports complex in 2002, but he supposedly did little to follow up on the allegation. When this news surfaced, Paterno came under fire for not doing enough to address this alleged assault.

On November 9, Paterno announced that he would retire at the end of the season, but the college's board decided to dismiss him that same day. After 46 years as a coach, the distinguished Paterno ended his career with a dark cloud hanging over him. Still, in the end, his thoughts were with Sandusky's alleged victims, not on his job. Paterno told the press, "I grieve for the children and their families, and I pray for their comfort and relief."

Paterno later explained that "I didn't know exactly how to handle it," referring to allegations of sexual abuse against Sandusky. "So I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did. It didn't turn out that way."

Final Days

After leaving Penn State, Paterno began suffering health problems. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in late 2011. While it was initially thought to be treatable, Paterno succumbed his illness two months later, on January 22, 2012, at Mount Nittany Medical Center in State College, Pennsylvania.

While scandal may have marred his final days as Penn State's coach, Paterno will also be remembered for developing the university's football program into a national powerhouse, and for preparing roughly 350 of his players for the NFL. Off the field, Paterno proved to be a strong supporter of the school in general, donating more than $4 million during his time there.

Paterno is survived by his wife, five children, and 17 grandchildren. In a statement, his family said: "He died as he lived. He fought hard until the end, stayed positive, thought only of others and constantly reminded everyone of how blessed his life had been ... He was a man devoted to his family, his university, his players and his community."

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