STATE COLLEGE, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, the winningest coach in major college football history who was fired in November over a child sexual abuse scandal involving an assistant that rocked America, died on Sunday of lung cancer. He was 85.
Paterno won adoration from fans of the highly successful and profitable Penn State football program and they unleashed invective at the university board of trustees who fired him unceremoniously after 46 years as head coach, tarnishing his outsized legacy.
Equally outraged were his critics and advocates for victims of sexual abuse who faulted Paterno for his relative inaction upon hearing an accusation that former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky had sexually abused a young boy in the Penn State football showers in 2002.
Paterno told university officials but not police, opening him to criticism that he protected an accused child molester for nine years.
Sandusky, 67, who has maintained his innocence, faces 52 criminal counts accusing him of sexually abusing 10 boys over 15 years, using his position as head of a The Second Mile, a charity dedicated to helping troubled children, to find his victims. The court placed him under house arrest.
Waves of mourners descended on a makeshift shrine to Paterno outside the university’s Beaver Stadium. They draped an American flag on a statue of Paterno and wrapped its neck with a Penn State scarf.
Sobbing at the statue’s feet was Dana Gordon, a 1982 graduate who blamed the school’s Board of Trustees for hastening Paterno’s death by firing him in a “callous way.”
“The way the board treated him took a lot of the fight out of him,” Gordon said.
The case raised questions about the measures the university took to protect Sandusky and a football program that Forbes magazine estimated made a profit of $53 million in 2010, especially since accusations against him first surfaced in 1998. At that time a university police detective admonished Sandusky to stop showering naked with boys but stopped short of bringing criminal charges.
One of the biggest scandals in college sports history, it provoked a national discussion about pedophilia in the same way charges involving Roman Catholic priests did years earlier.
The matter also drew impassioned arguments about the balance between protecting the young and the rights of criminal defendants, who are presumed innocent until proven guilty.
“I hope his passing and the controversy surrounding Sandusky will deter other people, especially powerful people, from covering up child sex crimes,” said David Clohessy, director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a support group.
“Even decades of professional achievement should not obscure dreadfully reckless and callous inaction that results in child sex crimes,” Clohessy said.
Sandusky issued a statement sending condolences to the Paterno family that did not mention the investigation.
“Nobody did more for the academic reputation of Penn State than Joe Paterno. He maintained a high standard in a very difficult profession,” Sandusky said.
Paterno won a reputation for making sure his players graduated and one of the program’s mottos was “Success With Honor.”
Paterno’s downfall was spectacular. For decades he was a symbol of vitality who patrolled the Penn State sidelines with unchallenged authority, easily recognizable by his thick eyeglasses and jet-black hair that only showed a hint of gray in his later years. His two national championships, in 1982 and 1986, won him enduring loyalty from fans who affectionately called him “JoePa.”
In the end, he was confined to a wheelchair upon breaking his hip in a fall one month after being fired, and he wore a wig after losing his hair to chemotherapy, according to the Washington Post, which interviewed Paterno about a week before his death.
Paterno was surrounded by family when he died 9:25 a.m. on Sunday of metastatic small cell carcinoma of the lung, Mount Nittany Medical Center said in a statement.
Paterno’s death may not significantly affect the case against Sandusky, but was more likely to weaken the criminal case against two university officials charged with perjury, at least one legal expert said.
Paterno learned of at least one accusation against Sandusky in 2002, when graduate assistant Mike McQueary told Paterno he witnessed Sandusky molesting a boy of about 10 years old in the showers of the Lasch Football Building.
Paterno told university officials but not police, a decision that ultimately led to his downfall.
Paterno, in an interview with the Washington Post published on January 14, said he was uncertain how to handle the matter and trusted the university administration.
Paterno testified before the grand jury that he informed former athletic director Tim Curley about what McQueary told him. About 10 days later, McQueary testified, he was called to a meeting with Curley and university finance official Gary Schultz to discuss what happened.
Curley and Schultz both face perjury charges based on their inaction. Schultz also testified before the grand jury he was aware of the 1998 investigation of Sandusky.
University President Graham Spanier was fired along with Paterno, and Curley and Schultz stepped down.
“If he (Paterno) had known the devastation that this means, he would have reacted differently,” said Peter Pelullo, founder of Let Go, Let Peace Come In, a support group helping some of Sandusky’s accusers with counseling.
“If there had been an auto accident on the Penn State campus and a kid had been run over, everybody would have called 911. That boy was being crushed at the moment he was in the shower with Sandusky. It’s not just Joe Paterno but the rest of the country that didn’t understand this,” Pelullo said.
Because Paterno was not believed to have witnessed any purported abuse, his testimony would not have been crucial to Sandusky trial, said Paul Callan, a former prosecutor and criminal defense attorney.
But his death could set back the criminal case against Curley and Schultz.
“The Confrontation Clause (of the constitution) guarantees that criminal defendants will have the right to confront and cross-examine the witnesses against them at the time of trial,” Callan said. “No defense attorneys were present at the grand jury proceedings to do such a cross-examination.”
Max Kennerly, a Philadelphia trial lawyer who has followed the case, said Paterno’s death was unlikely to alter any civil litigation being contemplated by Sandusky’s accusers. If any were considering suing Paterno, they could just name his estate.
“Death doesn’t change your status as a party,” Kennerly said.
Additional reporting by Ian Simpson, Barbara Goldberg and Noeleen Walder; Writing by Daniel Trotta and Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Cynthia Osterman