On the morning of Sunday, January 22nd, 2012, Joseph V. Paterno passed away at the age of 85 after a battle with lung cancer. The man that was synonymous with Penn State football leaves a large void in the Penn State community that can never be fully filled. The legendary former Penn State football coach left a lasting impression on Penn State University and college football as a whole. No coach will ever be able to have the same impact on so many lives as Joe Paterno.
By now, we all know the impact Joe Paterno had on the field. Before being fired this past season, Joe Paterno defeated Illinois to get his 409th win all-time and became the winningest coach in college football history. In addition to his impressive win total, Paterno coached five undefeated seasons and won two national championships. Furthermore, Paterno consistently had the Penn State football program in the national spotlight and built it into one of the top-ten programs in the history of college football.
Due to the success of the program over the years, and the increasing number of people following Penn State football, the University had to expand the football stadium on multiple occasions. Thus, Beaver Stadium, which can now seat over 110,000 people, has become a staple of the east side of campus. Thanks in large part to Paterno, every Saturday, thousands of fans flock to the area surrounding Beaver Stadium to tailgate and prepare to watch the Nittany Lions go into battle. In fact, leading up to every home game tents can be found outside of the stadium as students camp out for front-row seats in an area coined “Paternoville.”
During Joe Patnero’s tenure, while people within college football were getting a glimpse of the capability of one man to shape a football program, those at Penn State were falling in love with their coach. Over the years, Joe Paterno became more commonly known as “Joe Pa.” In fact, his wife who gave back to the community in many ways and became nearly as beloved as Joe, became known as “Sue Pa.” To many, Joe Paterno was more than a coach, he was a father figure who taught them the right way to live their lives. Coach Paterno was a sign of school pride and represented everything that was great about Penn State.
The ability of Paterno to construct and lead a football community was impressive, but the way in which he did it was even more impressive. When Joe Paterno became head football coach in 1966, he began his “grand experiment” to build a football program that fostered success on the field as well as in the classroom. Coach Paterno wanted to be remembered for helping his players mature into men who would impact the world outside of football. To Joe, the character of a man was equally, if not more important, than his ability to perform on the football field.
Well, the experiment was a success as year after year Coach Paterno produced players with graduation rates that were among the highest in the country for a big-time college football program. There were a great deal of players under Paterno that went on to the NFL, but many of the ones that didn’t went on to successful careers outside of football. While the legacy of Joe Paterno may be tainted, at least in some way, by his handling of the recent scandal involving Jerry Sandusky, Paterno’s ability to shape the lives of so many young man far outweigh the mishandling of the situation near the end of his career.
The reach of Joe Paterno stretches far past the east side of campus, where Beaver Stadium sits. Not only did Joe Paterno want to help his players, but he wanted to give back to the students at Penn State as well. For this reason, Joe, joined by his wife Sue, led a campaign to raise over $13 million, $2 million personally donated, to expand the library into one of the largest in the nation. In addition, the two donated $1 million to build the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center, which provides the opportunity for students to practice their faith on campus.
Over the years, Joe has continually preached the importance of academics, he has donated money to various other organizations, and he has even challenged the Board of Trustees to improve the overall value of the education at Penn State. Meanwhile, the national attention brought to the school by the success of the football program over the years has made Happy Valley an appealing place to prospective students seeking a college education. Furthermore, the attention has brought donors who continue to contribute to the construction of various buildings on campus. Quite simply, Penn State University would not be the same today without Joe Paterno.
Yet, one cannot begin to fully understand the impact Joe Paterno had on the world without looking at the response to his passing over the weekend. Many legendary college football figures such as Lou Holtz, Urban Meyer, and Brent Musburger, expressed their respect and admiration for a man who had such a profound impact on the sport of college football. Coaches within the Penn State community expressed similar thoughts and some even told stories of their interactions with the former coach. Former and current players, some of which spoke at a vigil that was held on campus Sunday evening, told heart-warming stories of the ways in which Joe Paterno shaped their lives. Furthermore, students and alumni, expressed their sadness as well as their memories of Joe Paterno through online mediums such as Facebook and Twitter. Everyone had a memory to share about Joe Paterno.
The most telling sign of the impact of Joe Paterno can be seen at the foot of his statue that sits outside of Beaver Stadium. From Saturday night, when the status of Joe Paterno was not fully known, until today, people have been stopping by the statue to pay their respects and leave an object that shows their appreciation for all that Coach Paterno has done for them. Throughout the day Sunday, the collection grew substantially as at almost any point in the day, there was at least one person at the statue. There are signs, candles, hats, pictures, and other Penn State memorabilia surrounding the statue. Even those outside the Penn State community have been inspired by Paterno as evidenced by a sign from West Virginia fans thanking the coach for his impact on college football. It seems his reach had few bounds.
Next to the statue, Beaver Stadium remained lit up late into Sunday night with a picture of Joe Paterno on the scoreboard. On a cloudy, gray night, the light could be seen lighting up the sky from anywhere on campus. Some went as far as to say that the light was guiding Joe Paterno to heaven. Whatever you believe, it was certainly fitting that the stadium served as a guiding light for the campus on the day of his death since Joe Paterno had dedicated his life to guiding Penn State.
Over the years, Joe Paterno has constantly emphasized that he wanted to be remembered for being more than a football coach. First and foremost, he wanted to be remembered as a good husband to his wife Sue and a good father and grandfather to his children and grandchildren. Outside of football, he wanted to be remembered for making a positive impact on Penn State University. For many, especially those within the Penn State community, Joe Paterno will be remembered for all these reasons and much more. Whether he was viewed as a husband, father, grandfather, or coach, he was viewed as an inspiration to all.