Paterno legacy shadowed by sex abuse scandal

Then Penn State  football coach Joe Paterno watches his team during practice in November in State College, Pennsylvania.

Story highlights

  • Legendary coach was fired in November amid a sex scandal that rocked Penn State
  • "It's horrible the way everything went down," a longtime fan says
  • Paterno told an interviewer in January, "I just did what I thought was best"

Fans braved a freezing January morning to pay their respects to the man known as JoePa, the coach who steered Penn State to two national titles and two dozen bowl victories.

But even as they talked of his achievements on and off the field, the abrupt, scandal-marred end of Joe Paterno's 46-year reign remained raw in their memories.

"If you look at what he's done his whole life for Penn State, I just think it's horrible the way everything went down," said Bethanna Edmiston, who said she met her husband Bill at Penn State in 1976. "May he rest in peace."

Paterno died Sunday at age 85, his family announced, two months after his dismissal by the university's board of trustees. His stellar reputation in both football and academics was clouded last November by reports of his reaction to a nearly decade-old child sex-abuse allegation against one of his former assistants.

JoePa a legend at Penn State

The Edmistons were among the throngs of fans who left signs, flowers and candles at the Paterno statue on the Penn State campus Sunday morning, some of them reaching out to touch the statue's outstretched hand.

Paterno spent a total of 62 seasons at Penn State, joining the team as an assistant coach in 1950. He became head coach in 1966, leading the team through five undefeated seasons, 24 bowl victories and national titles in 1982 and 1986. His 409 career wins are an NCAA record.

Outpouring of grief on campus

He earned a reputation not only as a football wizard but for his focus on academic achievement and civics. His 2009 team had an 89% graduation rate, according to the university. He contributed $3.5 million to the university in 1998, endowing faculty positions in liberal arts, architecture and landscape architecture. He helped fund an interfaith spiritual center, a sports museum and a library that bears his name.

'Sandusky scandal part of Paterno legacy'

    Just Watched

    'Sandusky scandal part of Paterno legacy'

'Sandusky scandal part of Paterno legacy' 01:21
Mourners pause to remember 'JoePa'

    Just Watched

    Mourners pause to remember 'JoePa'

Mourners pause to remember 'JoePa' 01:09
Joe Paterno dead

    Just Watched

    Joe Paterno dead

Joe Paterno dead 02:32

How will you remember Paterno?

"He stood for much," Penn State student Alex Robinson said. "He changed the way this university is run and how college athletics should be run in general, and he had high moral values."

SI column: Legacy more than final chapter

But it was allegations about the morals of a onetime lieutenant, former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, and Paterno's response to it that brought Paterno's decades-long reign to an end.

A Penn State graduate assistant, Mike McQueary, told a grand jury in 2011 that nine years earlier, he had seen Sandusky "with a boy in the shower, and that it was severe sexual acts going on and that it was wrong and over the line." McQueary testified that he had gone to Paterno with what he saw. Paterno said he'd never been told the graphic details revealed in the grand jury's November report, but that he nevertheless reported the allegations to his boss, then-Athletic Director Tim Curley.

Shortly before his death, Paterno told The Washington Post that McQueary "didn't want to get specific," but "I just did what I thought was best. I talked to people that I thought would be, if there was a problem, that would be following up on it."

It would be years before law enforcement learned about the allegation. Sandusky is now charged with more than 50 counts of child rape and sexual molestation; Curley and Gary Schultz, a former university vice president, have been charged with perjury and failure to report the abuse allegations. All have pleaded not guilty.

Curley was placed on administrative leave, while Schultz retired. On November 9, four days after Sandusky's arrest, Paterno announced he would retire at the end of the football season -- but the school's trustees unanimously voted to sack him the same day, along with the school's president, Graham Spanier.

The decision provoked a small-scale riot on campus, as angry students protested Paterno's dismissal.

"It's horrible that it happened, and it never should have happened," Edmiston said. "But Joe reported it, and he did what he thought he should do."

And Bill Edmiston added, "It wasn't his fault."

"We're still going to love Joe Paterno forever and ever, period," he said. "Because we are Penn State."