STATE COLLEGE - Joe Paterno often said one reason he resisted retirement all these years is because, as his old friend Bobby Bowden told him, "after you retire, there's only one big event left."
Sadly, less than three months after being fired by Penn State following his illustrious 46-year coaching tenure, that "big event" came at 9:25 a.m. Sunday when Paterno died at Mount Nittany Medical Center.
He was 85.
AP file photo
Former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno smiles as he walks the field before a game against Minnesota on Oct. 17, 2009, in University Park. Paterno, the longtime Penn State coach who won more games than anyone else in major college football but was fired amid a child sex abuse scandal that scarred his reputation for winning with integrity, died Sunday. He was 85.
Paterno had been hospitalized since Friday, Jan. 13 and was undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments for lung cancer. His family confirmed Paterno's illness on Nov. 18 - nine days after the university dismissed him in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal that engulfed Penn State.
Paterno's career and life ended in the heartache of the turmoil caused by Sandusky, who has been charged with molesting 10 boys over a period of 15 years and is free on $250,000 bail while awaiting trial.
In a statement Nov. 9, early in the day before he was fired, Paterno called the situation "one of the great sorrows of my life," and added, "I wish I had done more."
The university agreed. The Board of Trustees questioned his ability to continue to lead, and even though Paterno offered to retire at the end of the season, the board terminated him, setting off a firestorm of criticism, a late-night student riot and passions that still have not calmed.
Despite the ending, though, Paterno left an imprint on Penn State and college football deeper than any other coach in history.
His record of 409-136-3 made him the winningest Division I-A coach of all time - the last victory coming on Oct. 29 when the Nittany Lions hung on to beat Illinois, 10-7 at Beaver Stadium, preserved when a last-second Illini field goal attempt clanked off the upright.
After the game, Paterno was presented with a plaque for passing the previous record of 408 wins set by Grambling's Eddie Robinson.
He was touched by the moment, saying he was the son of an immigrant, and he talked about his appreciation for what Robinson, one of the few African-American head coaches, had overcome.
Paterno, too, had overcome.
A 1950 Brown graduate who came to State College as the only assistant his head coach, Rip Engle, was allowed to bring, Paterno had trouble adjusting to Penn State - "a cow college," he called it - and planned to spend only a couple of years before enrolling in law school.
But central Pennsylvania grew on him, and at 31 years old, after living with the Suhey and O'Hora families, Paterno fell in love with Suzanne Pohland of Latrobe, a student 13 years younger, and the two were married in 1962.
Paterno started to envision himself as Engle's successor, but he wasn't sure whether he'd be selected. Sever Toretti, a longtime Penn State assistant coach and savvy recruiter, was also in line (Toretti later graciously bowed out.)
Paterno once asked Green Bay Packers' legendary coach Vince Lombardi, also of Italian heritage and, like Paterno, a Brooklyn native, why it took so long for him to crack the head-coaching ranks. Lombardi was an assistant at Fordham and with the New York Giants and the Packers for many years before getting Green Bay's top job.
Lombardi remarked that part of it was his physical appearance, with his glasses and big nose. Paterno smiled when he told the story, knowing he had some features like Lombardi.
In 1964, Paterno had a chance to become the head coach at Yale. He wasn't sure he wanted it, but he knew he wanted to be a head coach. He and Engle met with Penn State President Eric Walker, who assured him "if you're good enough, you'll get the job."
He proved to be more than good enough.
He was named associate coach in 1965 and, after 16 years as an assistant, he succeeded Engle on Feb. 19, 1966.
Paterno quickly tried to brand his new program, launching what he called "The Grand Experiment," aimed at proving big-time football didn't have to preclude quality students and, to this day, the university operates under a "Success With Honor" credo.
After a bumpy start when he went 5-5 in his first season and then lost the first game of the 1967 season to Navy, Paterno went to a youth movement that included Altoona players Mike Reid and John Ebersole, and it helped produce a 31-game unbeaten streak, through 1969, with consecutive Orange Bowl victories over Kansas and Missouri.
The Lions went unbeaten again in 1973, and Paterno turned down a chance to become the New England Patriots' head coach - ironically, he's being succeeded by Patriots' offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien, also a Brown graduate.
He initially accepted the Pats' job and then changed his mind, in part because Sue didn't want to go, so he told her, "you went to bed with a millionaire, and you woke up with me."
After 12 seasons of raising the Lions' profile, Paterno got a chance to play for the national title in 1978, but the Lions lost to Alabama, 14-7, in the Sugar Bowl.
Paterno respected Bryant and couldn't beat him, going 0-4 including a loss in 1981 at Beaver Stadium in which The Bear tied Amos Alonzo Stagg's record for most victories with 314. Bryant retired with 323 wins, a mark Paterno broke in 2001.
Despite the disappointment against Alabama - which he considered the toughest loss of his career and took more than a year to recover from - Paterno kept stalking the holy grail, and he got it in 1982, riding the arm of Todd Blackledge and the legs of Curt Warner to beat Georgia to claim PSU's first national title.
With the success behind him, Paterno's legend and power base swelled.
Beaver Stadium opened with seating for 46,284 in 1960 and was expanded a total of seven times during Paterno's tenure, the last of which came in 2001 when luxury suites and club seats in the south end zone upped the capacity to 107,282.
As the athletic director in 1981, Paterno tried to convince fellow Eastern teams to form an Eastern all-sports conference, but it was torpedoed when Pitt committed to the Big East Conference in 1982. The relationship with Pitt, Penn State's oldest rival, would never be the same.
In 1985 and 1986, the Lions also finished the regular season unbeaten (for the fourth and fifth times of the Paterno Era) and played for No. 1. They lost to Oklahoma in the '86 Orange Bowl and beat a star-studded Miami team 14-10 in the '87 Fiesta Bowl - widely regarded as Penn State's greatest victory.
In 1990, the Big Ten came calling, and Penn State, effective in 1993, became the league's first new team since Michigan State in 1949. Paterno put together an offensive juggernaut in 1994 and the Lions, behind Kerry Collins, Ki-Jana Carter and Bobby Engram, rolled to a 12-0 season and their first (and only) Rose Bowl victory.
In his 19 Big Ten seasons, though, Paterno could not match the dominance that he enjoyed in the East. The Lions won or shared the Big Ten title just three times - in 1994, 2005 and 2008.
In November of 2004, after his fourth losing season in five years, in a meeting at his house, Paterno warded off a contingent of university officials, including then-president Graham Spanier, vice president Gary Schultz and athletic director Tim Curley, who wanted him to either retire or map a succession plan.
He did neither and bounced back with an 11-1 record and No. 3 ranking in 2005, capped with a triple-overtime victory over Florida State and Bowden in the Orange Bowl. It was the perfect time to leave, but he forged on.
In 2006, he took the first major blow of his career, health-wise, when he was plowed over on the sidelines at Wisconsin, suffering a broken leg. He missed the following week's game, against Temple, and coached the next two games from the press box with Tom Bradley in charge on the field.
The injury delayed his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame, which was put off until after the 2007 season.
From 2007 through 2011, Paterno would coach another 19 games from the press box due to various hip, leg and back ailments, a couple suffered on the practice field. He could frequently be seen bent over on the sidelines - a sad picture from the once-vibrant coach who prided himself on running out of the tunnel and leading the team onto the field each week.
Still, he was a beloved figure - JoePa - who remained the face of the university and was an active fundraiser, helping to close many big gifts by hosting benefactors at his home after games, win or lose.
Four years ago, while hoping for a last contract extension that he got, he estimated he and Sue had entertained "7,500 people" in their McKee Street home.
Though he had already given more than $4 million to Penn State, had the library named after him and helped generate hundreds of millions in other gifts, Paterno and his wife still gave another $100,000 last month - after he was fired.
During his career, Paterno was often asked how he'd like to be remembered. He recalled the story, around 1952, when he called his father, Angelo, and told him he planned to stay in coaching.
His parents wondered "what did you go to college for?" and then gave their blessing. His father told him, "if that's what you're going to do, make sure you have an impact."
No one can dispute that Paterno had an impact - on Penn State football, Penn State, college football, State College and central Pennsylvania.
Since his firing, Paterno did one interview, 11 days ago with Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post. He wore a wig, having lost his hair from the cancer treatments, and was in a wheelchair. He spoke for about 30 minutes on Thursday and another few minutes, from his bed, on Friday.
Shortly thereafter, he was taken to Mount Nittany Medical Center, where he remained until his death.
Paterno was never sure what his life would be like without football. In a book, "The Lion in Winter" by Frank Fitzpatrick, published in 2005, Paterno said, "I don't want to die. Football keeps me alive."