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Joe Paterno - A Career Retrospective

Johnie Freatman |
November 9, 2011 | 5:14 p.m. PST

Associate Sports Editor


Paterno's storied career will end on a sour note. (Creative Commons)
Paterno's storied career will end on a sour note. (Creative Commons)

One of the most storied and successful coaches in college football history, Joe Paterno’s once pristine legacy is now in question...and over.

Penn State's Board of Trustees decided Tuesday that Paterno, along with school president Graham Spanier, would be removed from their positions effective immediately.

Throughout Paterno’s 46 years as the coach of Penn State University, he developed a reputation not just for winning football games, but developing character and integrity in his players.

Paterno began his coaching career at Penn State as a 23-year-old in 1950. After serving 16 years as an assistant, he was given the head coaching job in 1966.

Near instant success ensued, with the Nittany Lions going undefeated in Paterno’s third and fourth years on the job, beginning a 15-year stretch in which the program posted double digit victory totals in 11 seasons.

Under Paterno, running back John Cappelletti captured the 1973 Heisman Trophy, the only Heisman in Penn State history. 

The Nittany Lions broke through in 1982 to win the first national championship of the Paterno era, and followed that up with another in 1986.

It was around this time that Penn State became known as “Linebacker U”, in homage to all the great linebackers Paterno helped cultivate along with long-time linebackers coach and defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.

The legacy began with Jack Ham and has continued over the decades since, including players like Greg Buttle, Shane Conlan, and Chuck Bednarik award winners LaVar ArringtonPaul Posluszny, and Dan Connor.

While the ‘90s were a successful decade for Penn State, the calls for Paterno to retire began in the 2000s, when four of the first five seasons of the decade ended with losing records.

In a 2005 speech, Paterno declared, "If we don't win some games, I've got to get my rear end out of here,” only to memorably claim the 2005 Big Ten title and a BCS game on the way to 12 wins.

Paterno’s last Big Ten championship came in 2008, when his Nittany Lions subsequently lost to USC in the Rose Bowl.

A coaching legend and unforgettable presence on the sidelines, Paterno will exit with 409 victories, the most of any major college coach.

Other distinctions include: five undefeated seasons (1968, 1969, 1973, 1986 and 1994), five AFCA Coach of the Year awards (1968, 1978, 1982, 1986 and 2005) and the most seasons (62) for any football coach at one university.

Paterno was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame on May 16, 2006.

As successful as his coaching career was, Paterno was long revered for the way he conducted himself and his program.

Early in his career, he instituted the so-called “Grand Experiment”, an attempt to get his program to succeed not only on the football field but in the classroom as well.

By any measure, this plan has succeeded greatly, especially of late. Penn State has had at least one academic All-American in each of the last nine years and 13 since 2006.

In the Big Ten conference, Penn State’s four-year graduation rate ranks second only to Northwestern; the 2009 squad’s 89 percent graduation rate was the highest of any team ranked in the final AP Top 25 poll.

Paterno also quickly endeared himself to the people of State College, Pa. with his down-to-earth nature and quick wit.

This bond was helped by the fact that never in Paterno’s time at Penn State was there even a trace of a serious NCAA violation.

Despite the celebrity status granted to him by residents of “Happy Valley” and college football fans in general, Paterno always had a common man feel to him, down to his trademark coke-bottle glasses.

As much as Penn State and Happy Valley loved him, Paterno and his family loved the community back.

In 1998, the Paterno family donated $3.5 million to the university, thought to be the highest amount ever made by a collegiate coach to a university.

Paterno’s stint in State College has, until now, been so perfect that one former player took to calling it Camelot.

Of course, all is not happy in “Happy Valley” right now. Far from it. The allegations surrounding Sandusky and a potential athletic department cover-up are nothing short of sickening.

Though at this time nobody is disputing Paterno’s compliance with the letter of the law, he has a lot of serious questions to answer.

Right now, the one man in college sports who everybody thought was a “sure thing” is anything but.

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