His impact on many is undisputed

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This goes back to late-November 2007, only days before Penn State coach Joe Paterno's enshrinement in the College Football Hall of Fame. During a revealing 90-minute session with journalists, he was asked how he would like to go out. He did not hesitate.

"I think the perfect ending is you drop dead at the end of the game after you've kicked the winning field goal, and you're carried off the field and everyone is singing, 'So long, Joe. It's been wonderful.' "

Listen ...

Can't you hear the voices?

But there also are those who are singing a discordant song. They believe Mr. Paterno got what he deserved when he was fired Nov. 9 by Penn State after 62 years -- 46 as head coach -- because of his role in the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. The merits of that firing and its impact on Mr. Paterno's complicated legacy will be debated for years.

Mr. Paterno died Sunday morning at age 85 from complications from lung cancer, touching off national mourning and more questions about what he knew about Mr. Sandusky's alleged actions.

What can't be argued is this:

Mr. Paterno honored his late father by taking his advice to heart. He had disappointed his parents, Angelo and Florence, in 1950 when he told them he was passing up law school to become an assistant coach at Penn State under Rip Engle. "I always thought you were going to be president of the United States," Mr. Paterno recalled his father telling him. But he also clearly remembered these words from his old man: "If that's what you want to do, then do it. Just make sure you make an impact."

Arguably, no one has meant more to a university than Mr. Paterno.

"You come here as a child and you leave as a man," former All-American linebacker Dan Connor once said, describing the Penn State experience under Mr. Paterno.

Mr. Paterno's devotion to his players and their loyalty to him are legendary. He demanded excellence on the field and off. Most years, Penn State ranked among college football's best in terms of graduating players.

The Paterno Way, people called it.

Success with honor and integrity.

Players had a friend for life in Mr. Paterno, even those who got into trouble and embarrassed him. In 2008, ESPN's "Outside the Lines" portrayed Penn State as having a renegade program with a leader who was out of touch. It stung Mr. Paterno.

"We're not perfect," he said later. "I'm not about to sit here and say we have a bunch of angels. But we've got a bunch of good kids."

More often than not, Mr. Paterno gave a second chance to his players who needed one. More often than not, those players turned out to be successful, not just on the field, but in life.

"Youth is a disease, but it can be cured," Mr. Paterno liked to say, quoting Theodore Roosevelt.

Mr. Paterno had a positive influence on thousands of Penn State students. His fundraising endowed countless scholarships and faculty positions. He and his wife, Sue, donated more than $4 million to the university, and their tireless work on behalf of, among many things, the Paterno Library, the Mount Nittany Medical Center and Special Olympics will never be forgotten. Mr. Paterno was nominated in September for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, this country's highest civilian award.

Angelo and Florence Paterno would be so proud.

Mr. Paterno didn't become a president, but he outlasted 11 after joining Engle's staff during the Harry Truman administration. He frequently said being around young people kept him young. He missed just three of 731 Penn State games during the next 62 years. But there was more to his longevity. He was afraid of living without football. He also was afraid of dying without it. More than once, he talked of his good friend, the great Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant, who retired after the 1982 season and died soon after.

So Mr. Paterno endured, through good times and bad. There were four losing seasons in five years from 2000-04, prompting Penn State president Graham Spanier and athletic director Tim Curley to ask Mr. Paterno to retire. He declined. Mr. Paterno's most controversial decision might have been to hire his son, Jay, as an assistant coach in 1995. Jay Paterno quickly became a polarizing figure, not just with Penn State fans but with staff members. That hurt Joe Paterno badly.

In 2005, Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, who also was struggling through tough times as he neared the end of his Hall of Fame career, asked Mr. Paterno how he shrugged off the barbs. "I told him you can't lose sight of who you are and what you're doing and what you want to do just because someone on the outside thinks they know better than you," Mr. Paterno said. "If you get that concerned with criticism, you can't do your job."

In that 2005 season, Mr. Paterno led Penn State to a 11-1 record, an Orange Bowl win against Mr. Bowden's Florida State team and a No. 3 ranking in the final Associated Press poll. He was national coach of the year.

Mr. Paterno went on to win 409 games, the final one coming Oct. 29 -- 10-7 against Illinois -- pushing him ahead of Grambling legend Eddie Robinson on the Division I list. Mr. Sandusky was arrested a week later, an off day for the Penn State team. Mr. Paterno was fired four days after that.

"I can't imagine anyone ever getting [to 409 wins] again unless they start playing 25 games a year in college football," former Penn State great Jack Ham said.

Win No. 400 was especially memorable. Penn State matched its greatest comeback of the Paterno era, climbing out of a 21-0 hole to beat Northwestern, 35-21, Nov. 6, 2010. Most in the Beaver Stadium crowd of 104,147 stayed to see a moving on-field tribute to Mr. Paterno after the game. He was joined on the podium by Sue, their five children, including Jay, who was in tears, their spouses and his 17 grandchildren.

"People ask me why I've stayed here so long," Mr. Paterno said that magical night. "You know what, look around ... look around."

More than 26 million fans watched Mr. Paterno's team play in Happy Valley. Who could have guessed that in 1950? Who could have guessed that hundreds of students would camp out at Beaver Stadium in what they called "Paternoville" to get the best seats for the next game?

"We were happy to get 20,000 at our games," Mr. Paterno said of his early years at Penn State, fairly giggling. There were 40,911 at his first win as head coach against Maryland Sept. 17, 1966.

It isn't a stretch to say Mr. Paterno put Penn State in tiny State College, Pa., on the map.

"People thought we were the University of Pennsylvania," Mr. Ham said. "They thought we were in Philadelphia. Now, they know better."

What a perfect legacy that would have been for Mr. Paterno, of whom Alabama coach Nick Saban once said, "There isn't a classier gentleman, a better teacher or a guy who has affected more lives in a positive way."

But the ending for Mr. Paterno wasn't so neat and tidy. Many people will remember the way he was fired more than the good he did for Penn State. That Medal of Freedom nomination was rescinded after he was dismissed by Penn State.

In 2002, Mr. Paterno was told by Penn State assistant coach Mike McQueary of an alleged sexual encounter between Mr. Sandusky -- Penn State's former longtime defensive coordinator -- and a young boy of about 10 in the showers at the university's Lasch Football Building. Mr. Sandusky is facing 52 criminal charges of sexually abusing 10 young boys over a 15-year period.

In an interview with the Washington Post almost two weeks ago, Mr. Paterno said he didn't feel "adequate" to deal with the Sandusky situation in 2002. He said he thought he did the right thing by kicking the information up to his superiors, Mr. Curley, the athletic director, and university vice president Gary Schultz. The Penn State Board of Trustees, explaining the decision to fire Mr. Paterno, said he had a moral obligation to do more. They also weren't pleased with his impertinence when, in a statement only hours before his firing via a telephone call, he tried to plot his exit, saying he would retire after the season.

"In hindsight, I wish I had done more," Mr. Paterno said in that same statement.

Mr. Paterno was diagnosed with lung cancer Nov. 18, nine days after his firing. His health was further complicated by a fall Dec. 10 in his home, which left him with a broken pelvis. He lasted 74 days after football was taken from him.

And Mr. Bryant? He coached his final game Dec. 29, 1982 -- a 21-15 win against Illinois -- and died of a heart attack at 69 Jan. 26, 1983. That's 28 days.

Mr. Paterno and Mr. Bryant always were going to be linked because Mr. Bryant's Alabama team handed Penn State what Mr. Paterno called his most painful defeat in the Sugar Bowl after the 1978 season. The Crimson Tide won, 14-7, denying the Nittany Lions an unbeaten season.

Now, sadly, Mr. Paterno and Mr. Bryant will be linked forever for another reason.

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com .


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