From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
His 409-136 won-loss record made him college football's winningest NCAA Division 1 coach. His name on the library he built at Penn State bears testament to his devotion to academic achievement. Personally, those close to Joe Paterno-as well as the legions of Penn Staters who knew him as the fatherly "Joe Pa"-attest that he put everyone else first. Even as he lay dying at Mount Nittany Medical Center, "he was fighting as hard as he possibly could," daughter Mary Kay Paterno Hort, 47, says. "To the last days, he was like, 'What are you doing here? Go home, take care of your kids!' "

When Joe Paterno died of lung cancer on Jan. 22 at age 85, he left a complicated legacy. No one can erase the 61 years he devoted to improving the university, but no one can forget the question that haunted his last days: Could he have protected the alleged victims of his assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, charged with molesting 10 children (see box)? Unceremoniously fired on Nov. 9, Paterno called the situation "one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more."

While commentators debated whether a broken heart killed Paterno, his family insists he was at peace. "There was no question in his mind," says Hort, the second of Paterno's five children with his wife of 50 years, Sue, "that he would be remembered for the way he lived his life."

A Brooklyn boy who had intended to become a lawyer, Paterno was just 23 when one of his former coaches at Brown talked him into an assistant's job with the Nittany Lions in rural State College, Pa. Paterno once described his initial reaction as, "Come to this hick town?" He and Sue settled into a modest ranch house, where they remained all these years while donating millions of dollars to the school. Cornerback Adam Taliaferro, paralyzed by a spinal injury in a 2000 game, said Paterno flew to Philadelphia to visit him in the hospital every other week for four months-always coaching: "Doctors were giving me a 3 percent chance of walking, but the first thing he said was, 'You're going to walk again.' When Coach Paterno tells you to do something, you do it." And Taliaferro, now a lawyer, is walking. "When a guy like that believes in you," he says, "you start to believe in yourself." That, beyond the 24 bowl-game victories, is what Joe Pa fans remember-a man who used to say, "Success without honor is an unseasoned dish; it will satisfy your hunger, but it won't taste good."

  • Contributors:
  • Nicole Weisensee Egan/Philadelphia,
  • Rennie Dyball/State College.