Paterno, a sainted figure at Penn State for almost half a century but scarred forever by the scandal involving his one-time heir apparent, died Sunday at age 85.
His death came just 65 days after his son Scott said his father had been diagnosed with lung cancer. Mount Nittany Medical Center said he died at 9:25 a.m. of “metastatic small cell carcinoma of the lung,” an aggressive cancer that has spread from one part of the body to an unrelated area.
Friends and former colleagues believe there were other factors — the kind that wouldn’t appear on a death certificate.
“You can die of heartbreak. I’m sure Joe had some heartbreak, too,” 82-year-old Bobby Bowden said, the former Florida State coach who retired two years ago after 34 seasons in Tallahassee.
Longtime Nebraska coach Tom Osborne said he suspected “the emotional turmoil of the last few weeks might have played into it.”
And Mickey Shuler, who played tight end for Paterno from 1975 to 1977, held his alma mater accountable.
“I don’t think that the Penn State that he helped us to become and all the principles and values and things that he taught were carried out in the handling of his situation,” he said.
Paterno’s death just under three months following his last victory called to mind another coaching great, Alabama’s Paul “Bear” Bryant, who died less than a month after retiring.
“Quit coaching?” Bryant said late in his career. “I’d croak in a week.”
Paterno alluded to the remark made by his friend and rival, saying in 2003: “There isn’t anything in my life anymore except my family and my football. I think about it all the time.”
The winningest coach in major college football, Paterno roamed the Penn State sidelines for 46 seasons, his thick-rimmed glasses, windbreaker and jet-black sneakers as familiar as the Nittany Lions’ blue and white uniforms.
NCAA President Mark Emmert said Sunday: “Our prayers and thoughts go out to the family and friends of Joe Paterno at the passing of a legendary football coach.”