In the multi-billion dollar universe of American college sport, the football coach is king. And no such monarch was ever more venerated, more successful and long-reigning than Joe Paterno at Penn State. The national shock at the child abuse scandal that brought him down was itself a measure of the esteem in which he was held; not just in the homely college town in central Pennsylvania where he did his business, but all across America.
Compared with a coaching career that stretched an astonishing 61 years, the scandal – in which Paterno was punished not for what he did, but for what he did not do – unfolded in the blink of an eye. On 4 November his former assistant coach and close associate Jerry Sandusky was charged with sexually abusing eight young boys. Five days later, with the very foundations of the university shaking, the 84-year-old Paterno was sacked by the Penn State board of governors, deemed guilty of failing to alert his superiors and the authorities about Sandusky's alleged crimes, after he had been told by a subordinate. The university president was dismissed as well. Little more than two months later Paterno died, from complications of the lung cancer for which he was already being treated.
But that final disgrace cannot remove the lustre of what went before. During his 46 years as head coach, the man referred to by one and all as "JoePa" won a record 409 top-flight college games, 37 bowl games and two national championships. More than 250 of his charges went on to play in the NFL. By the end he was counted among the greatest coaches in US sport, period, up there with titans like Phil Jackson and Vince Lombardi.
By the standards of some college football coaches, with their $5m annual contracts and use of private jets, Paterno lived modestly. He was the most famous man on campus – arguably in all Pennsylvania – yet he walked to work, his home phone number was in the book, and anyone could call.
He had his critics: he could be rude and pigheaded. Some said his playing philosophy was too conservative, others that he should have bowed out years earlier. But with Joe Paterno, results spoke for themselves. He was also notable for trying to ensure that his players (technically Corinthian amateurs in an often ruthless and sometimes corrupt business) studied properly and graduated. To a considerable extent he succeeded. Penn State's football programme was arguably the most admired in the land – at least until the scandal that ended its orchestrator's extraordinary career.
Joseph Vincent Paterno, American football coach: born Brooklyn, New York 21 December 1926; assistant football coach, Pennsylvania State University 1950-1965, head coach 1965-2011; married 1962 Susan Pohland (two daughters, three sons); died State College, Pennsylvania 22 January 2012.