STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Joe Paterno’s doctors said Saturday that the former Penn State coach’s condition had become “serious,” following complications from lung cancer in recent days.
The winningest major college football coach, Paterno was diagnosed shortly after Penn State’s Board of Trustees ousted him Nov. 9 in the aftermath of the child sex abuse charges against former assistant Jerry Sandusky. While undergoing treatment, his health problems worsened when he broke his pelvis — the same injury he sustained during preseason practice last year.
“Over the last few days Joe Paterno has experienced further health complications,” family spokesman Dan McGinn said in a brief statement to The Associated Press. “His doctors have now characterized his status as serious. His family will have no comment on the situation and asks that their privacy be respected during this difficult time.”
Paterno’s sons Scott and Jay each took to Twitter on Saturday night to refute reports that their father had died.
Wrote Jay Paterno: “I appreciate the support & prayers. Joe is continuing to fight.”
Quoting individuals close to the family, The Washington Post reported on its website thatPaterno remained connected to a ventilator, but had communicated his wishes not to be kept alive through any extreme artificial means. The paper said his family was weighing whether to take him off the ventilator on Sunday.
The 85-year-old Paterno has been in the hospital since Jan. 13 for observation for what his family called minor complications from his cancer treatments. Not long before that, he conducted his only interview since losing his job, with the Post. Paterno was described as frail and wearing a wig. The second half of the two-day interview was conducted from his bedside.
Roughly 200 students and townspeople gathered Saturday night at a statue of Paterno just outside a gate at Beaver Stadium. Some brought candles, while others held up their smart phones to take photos of the scene. The mood was somber, with no chanting or shouting.
“Drove by students at the Joe statue,” Jay Paterno tweeted. “Just told my Dad about all the love & support—inspiring him.”
Penn State student David Marselles held a candle in his right hand and posed next to a life-sized cardboard cutout of Paterno that he keeps at his apartment. A friend took a photo on the frigid night.
“I came to Penn State because of Joe Paterno. Since I was a little kid, I’ve been watching the games … screaming ‘We Are … Penn State’ because of him. … He inspired me to go to college,” Marselles said. “With such a tragic event like this, I just thought it was necessary to show my support.”
The final days of Paterno’s Penn State career were easily the toughest in his 61 years with the university and 46 seasons as head football coach.
Sandusky, a longtime defensive coordinator who was on Paterno’s staff during two national title seasons, was arrested Nov. 5 and ultimately charged with sexually abusing a total of 10 boys over 15 years. His arrest sparked outrage not just locally but across the nation and there were widespread calls for Paterno to quit.
Paterno announced late on Nov. 9 that he would retire at the end of the season, but hours later he received a call from board vice chairman John Surma, telling him he had been terminated. By that point, a crowd of students and media were outside the Paterno home. When news spread that Paterno had been dumped, there was rioting in State College.
Police on Saturday evening barricaded the block where Paterno lives, and a police car was stationed about 50 yards from his home. Several people had gathered in the living room of the house. No one was outside, other than reporters and photographers.
Trustees said this week they pushed Paterno out in part because he failed a moral responsibility to report an allegation made in 2002 against Sandusky to authorities outside the university. They also felt he had challenged their authority and that, as a practical matter, with all the media in town and attention to the Sandusky case, he could no longer run the team.
Paterno testified before the grand jury investigating Sandusky that he had relayed to his bosses an accusation that came from graduate assistant Mike McQueary, who said he saw Sandusky abusing a boy in the showers of the Penn State football building.
Paterno told the Post that he didn’t know how to handle the charge, but a day after McQueary visited him, he spoke to the athletic director and the administrator with oversight over the campus police.
Wick Sollers, Paterno’s lawyer, called the board’s comments this week self-serving and unsupported by the facts. Paterno fully reported what he knew to the people responsible for campus investigations, Sollers said.
“He did what he thought was right with the information he had at the time,” Sollers said.
Sandusky says he is innocent and is out on bail, awaiting trial.
The back and forth between Paterno’s representative and the board reflects a trend in recent weeks, during which Penn State alumni — and especially former players, including Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris — have questioned the trustees’ actions and accused them of failing to give Paterno a chance to defend himself.
Three town halls, in Pittsburgh, suburban Philadelphia and New York City, seemed to do little to calm the situation and dozens of candidates have now expressed interest in running for the board, a volunteer position that typically attracts much less interest.
While everyone involved has said the focus should be on Sandusky’s accusers and their ordeals, the abuse scandal brought a tarnished ending to Paterno’s sterling career. Paternowon 409 games and took the Nittany Lions to 37 bowl games and those two national championships, the last in the 1986 season. More than 250 of the players he coached went on to the NFL.
Throughout his coaching years, Paterno maintained that, yes, winning was important, but even more important was winning with honor.