Coach Joe Paterno leads his Penn State team onto the field in 2004 for a game… (Carolyn Kaster / Associated…)
During a six-decade career, Joe Paterno transformed sleepy Penn State University into a national football power, creating a legacy that no one thought could be beaten — or tarnished.
But the Ivy League-educated coach who demanded that his players excel in the classroom as well as on the field and was revered by generations of fans, was, in the end, forced out amid a scandal that broke hearts and stoked fierce national debate.
Three months after Penn State's board of trustees fired him after the arrest of former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky on multiple felony counts of sexually abusing boys, Paterno died Sunday in State College, Pa. He was 85 and had been diagnosed with lung cancer in November, just days after his abrupt dismissal.
"His ambitions were far-reaching, but he never believed he had to leave this Happy Valley to achieve them," the Paterno family said in a statement. "He was a man devoted to his family, his university, his players and his community."
Paterno was not implicated in a grand jury's indictment of Sandusky but was criticized for not acting more aggressively in 2002 after a graduate assistant informed Paterno he saw Sandusky sexually molest a boy in a locker room shower at Penn State. Paterno passed the information on to his superior, athletic director Tim Curley.
Paterno's inglorious exit shocked a community that watched him rise from a young assistant to become a national icon. His Coke-bottle eyeglasses and rolled-up pant legs came to embody the school's victories-with-virtue persona.
The coach was so beloved in State College that full-size cardboard cutouts of him were common sights around town. Even an ice cream flavor, "Peachy Paterno," was named after him.
In college football's fraternity, he was known simply as "JoePa."
But on Nov. 9, 2011, five days after the scandal broke, the board of trustees fired Paterno three games short of completing his 46th season as head coach.
Former Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne, who won three national titles in the 1990s, suspects the scandal took a toll on Paterno's health and detracted from his otherwise stellar career.
"His longevity over time and his impact on college football is remarkable," Osborne said in a statement: "Anybody who knew Joe feels badly about the circumstances. I suspect the emotional turmoil of the last few weeks might have played into it."
The board of trustees denied Paterno's request to retire at the end of the 2011 season. Only days after he issued a tempered response to the initial Sandusky allegations, Paterno expressed heartfelt remorse over what had happened on his watch.
"I am absolutely devastated by the developments in this case," Paterno said in a statement released hours before he was fired. "I grieve for the children and their families, and I pray for their comfort and relief."
He vowed to "spend the rest of my life doing everything I can to help this university."
Paterno's career at Penn State spanned more than six decades, beginning in 1950 as a 23-year-old assistant to Rip Engle, who had coached him as a player at Brown. His firing came less than two weeks after he recorded his 409th career victory, which moved him past former Grambling Coach Eddie Robinson on major college football's all-time list.
Paterno was a five-time national coach of the year, won two national titles, fielded five unbeaten teams and was the first major college coach to eclipse Bear Bryant's victory record of 323.
Paterno ended his career as the all-time leader in bowl appearances (37) and bowl victories (24) and in 2006 was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. He is the only coach to have won all four of college football's major bowls: Rose, Fiesta, Orange and Sugar.
Voted into the same Hall of Fame class, Paterno and Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden spent years jostling for the all-time major college win record.
"History will say he's one of the greatest," Bowden said Sunday. "Who's coached longer, who's coached better, who's won more games, who's been more successful than Joe? Who's done more for his university than Joe?"
During Paterno's tenure, Penn State produced 79 first-team All-America players, 33 first-round NFL draft picks and 16 National Football Foundation scholar-athletes.
The list of those who played for Paterno includes Jack Ham, John Cappelletti, Franco Harris, Lydell Mitchell, Curt Warner, Shane Conlin, Matt Millen, Todd Blackledge, Kyle Brady, LaVar Arrington, Larry Johnson, Courtney Brown and Kerry Collins.
Paterno's teams were known for their toughness and selflessness. The school's blue-and-white uniforms were famously nondescript — lacking player names, decorations or logos — a Brand X quality that came to symbolize the program's team-first image.
An English literature major at Brown University in Rhode Island, Paterno was a voracious reader whose favorite sayings included Robert Browning's "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?"