Joe Paterno: A Look At The Famous Coach’s Fall From Grace

HBO film starring Al Pacino portrays sexual assault scandal that swirled around Penn State icon

Joe Paterno became the winningest coach in Div. I college football history before he was fired, when questions soon began to be asked about how much he knew about the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal.
Matt Rourke / AP Images

HBO film starring Al Pacino portrays sexual assault scandal that swirled around Penn State icon

Joe Paterno became the winningest coach in Div. I college football history in Oct. 2011. It was a highlight of a 46-year head coaching career at Penn State in which Paterno won two national championships.

A week later, Paterno was out, his image to no longer be the same due to questions about what he knew regarding the sex abuse by his assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky. The defensive coordinator was arrested and later convicted of 52 counts of sexual abuse of boys over 15 years, Biography.com reported.

The portrayal of what happened in those two weeks is what premiered Saturday in the HBO film Paterno. Barry Levinson directed the film and Al Pacino played the former coach, according to Biography.com.

Born Dec. 21, 1926, in Brooklyn, New York, Joseph Paterno got an assistant head coaching job at Penn State after graduating from Brown University in 1950. He learned from Charles “Rip” Engle, his Brown coach. Paterno replaced Engle in 1966 after 16 years, as Biography.com reported.

Paterno led Penn State to five undefeated seasons and was the first coach to claim victory in each of the major bowls: the Rose, Orange, Fiesta, and Sugar. Also, he refused an offer in 1973 to coach the New England Patriots and joined the College Football Hall of Fame in 2006, according to Biography.com.

Joe Paterno won two national championships, had five undefeated seasons and won each of the major bowls.
  Carolyn Kaster / AP Images

When Paterno was at Penn State, Biography.com reported, he became the top representation of the university.

“Penn State won because [Paterno] wanted to recruit people with the same values he had,” former Penn State running back Charlie Pittman said in 2012, according to Fox Sports. “People who wanted to compete at the highest level and people who wanted to participate and truly enjoy college, not just to play football.”

Paterno sought these sorts of candidates as part of his “Grand Experiment,” as he described it, which brought him extraordinary success and admiration. He gave more than $4 million to the school; he enjoyed being the coach for 11 years while a library was named after him, according to Biography.com.

After meeting Suzanne Pohland when she was a co-ed at Penn State, Paterno married her, in 1962. Each of their five children went the school, Biography.com reported.

“For me, a kid from Brooklyn, whose grandfather was an immigrant, to do something like this really means a lot to me,” Paterno said at a public recognition of his record-setting victory, according to Biography.com.

That was Oct. 29, 2011. Seven days later, the public learned of the accusations opposite Sandusky. The next day, Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley was gone. And just three days after that, Paterno announced that he was retiring, Biography.com reported.

“This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more,” Paterno said in a written statement.

Paterno tried to steer how he left in announcing he was retiring, but that lasted mere hours. The Penn State Board of Trustees then said that it had terminated Paterno, besides school president Graham Spanier, according to Biography.com.

Backing Paterno, students met the evening he was terminated next to the school’s administration building. The thousands then marched to State College, Penn., shouting Paterno’s name, flipping over a television news van and breaking light posts, Biography.com reported.

“I am disappointed with the Board of Trustee’s decision, but I have to accept it,” Paterno remarked after the news of his termination.

How much of Sandusky’s wrongdoing did Paterno know? Levinson, the film’s director, told the Sydney Morning Herald that a lack of clarity is central to the film, according to Biography.com.

“I think we show all of the aspects of it, and I think that that’s what makes it compelling because, on one hand, you say, ‘Well, look, he knew about that,’ and on another, you say, ‘Well, maybe he didn’t know about that,'” Levinson said.

Filmmaker Barry Levinson directed the HBO film "Paterno."
  Evan Agostini / Invision / AP Images

Paterno kept back information, according to the FBI, about Sandusky’s abuse, Biography.com reported.

“Whether his legacy could have been recast over time remains unknown,” the website’s Colin Bertram added. “After leaving Penn State, Paterno began suffering from health problems and was diagnosed with lung cancer in late 2011. His spectacular fall from grace would skew the many obituaries written about him when, on Jan. 22, 2012, Paterno succumbed to his illness and died at age 85.”

Sandusky got a sentence in Oct. 2012 that meant that he needed to spend 30 to 60 years in prison. The day before, he still claimed he was innocent, Biography.com reported.

Immediately after his termination was announced, Paterno went outside with his wife, finding a crowd of stunned students and reporters, according to Biography.com.

“I want to say hello to all these great students who I love. Hey, you guys are great. All of ya,” Paterno said. “When I say guys, you know what I mean: You know I mean girls, too.”

“I’m out of it, maybe. A phone call put me out of it,” Paterno added. “We’ll go from there. Thanks, thanks for coming.”

At that point, Paterno had just “one thing” before heading back into his house.

“Pray a little bit for those victims,” he said.