- Associated Press - Thursday, November 10, 2011

He was a Brooklyn kid, an Ivy League graduate, a young man with designs on becoming a lawyer. Joe Paterno reluctantly went to Penn State to coach football and stayed 61 years.

Paterno turned those halting beginnings into a career and an industry that produced hundreds of wins, thousands of good citizens and millions of dollars for causes he believed in. He built a program on his personality and an idea _ that you could achieve big-time success in big-time sports while still getting a good education and without selling your soul.

The homespun idea concocted in the Norman Rockwell town of State College by a man affectionately known as “Joe Pa” unraveled this week when a sex-abuse scandal involving his former assistant, Jerry Sandusky, exploded, costing key administrators their jobs and forcing Paterno’s exit to come far from on his own terms. Paterno was fired late Wednesday via a phone call.

His legacy _ once seemingly untouchable _ is now in peril. But his record, the raw numbers at least, cannot be touched.

The path to a record 409 victories began at 23, when Paterno was coaxed by Rip Engle, his former football coach at Brown, to work with him when Engle moved to become Penn State’s head coach in 1950.

“I had no intention to coach when I got out of Brown,” Paterno said in a 2007 interview before being inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. “Come to this hick town? From Brooklyn?”

Paterno always thought life as a lawyer would be nice. His father, Angelo, thought his son might one day become president.

Instead, the gridiron became Paterno’s home and offers from Al Davis in Oakland and the ownership in New England couldn’t root out Paterno from his adopted home in Happy Valley.

Three years after turning down Davis, who in 1963 offered to triple his salary to $18,000 to become the Raiders’ offensive coordinator, Paterno took over as Penn State’s head coach.

When Engle and Paterno arrived, Penn State had gone through three coaches in three years and had an offense made up mostly of walk-ons. Engle never had a losing season at Penn State, but when Paterno took over in 1966, the Lions still were considered “Eastern football” _ inferior to the Alabamas and Oklahomas and Southern Californias that dominated the game in those days.

Over the years, though, the program got onto even footing with those power schools. All the while, Paterno’s fans insisted it was more than simply about football and winning.

“He teaches us about really just growing up and being a man,” former linebacker Paul Posluszny, now with the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, once said. “Besides the football, he’s preparing us to be good men in life.”

Paterno was a frequent speaker on ethics in sports, the self-appointed conscience for a world often infiltrated by scandal and shady characters. He made sure his players went to class.

As of 2011, Penn State has had 49 academic All-Americans _ 47 under Paterno _ the third-highest total among FBS institutions.

The team’s graduation rates are consistently ranked among the best in the Big Ten. In 2010, Penn State’s 84 percent rate trailed only Northwestern’s 95.

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