The house at the end of the block was fast taking on the feel of a shrine when Joe Paterno stepped into the crisp November night with his wife, Sue, by his side. Students had gathered on the lawn, some carrying hand-lettered signs, many near tears and all of them confused, sad and angry.
For the first time in nearly half a century, Paterno was no longer Penn State’s head coach, fired moments earlier by university trustees desperate to contain the damage caused by a child sex-abuse scandal involving former defensive coordinator and one-time heir apparent Jerry Sandusky.
An era was ending, Paterno acknowledged.
“Right now, I’m not the coach. And I’ve got to get used to that,” he said.
A mere 74 days later, Paterno was dead.
Paterno’s 46th season in charge at Penn State began with a blindside hit _ an omen, perhaps, of the trouble to come.
As the Nittany Lions ran drills during a preseason practice Aug. 7, Paterno was watching the defense when wide receiver Devon Smith slammed into the then-84-year-old coach, injuring his shoulder and pelvis. Paterno spent two nights in the hospital, and the injuries would keep him in the pressbox during games for much of the season.
But he returned to practice three days after the collision, insisting the injuries would not force him into retirement.
“The day I wake up in the morning and say, `Hey, do I have to go to practice again?’ then I’ll know it’s time to get out,” Paterno said.
The Nittany Lions began the year as unsettled at quarterback as they had been the previous season, when their 7-6 record was their worst since going 4-7 in 2004. But Penn State’s resounding 41-7 victory over FCS opponent Indiana State in the season-opener returned the Nittany Lions to the Top 25 for the first time in 11 months _ just in time for a visit from then-No. 3 Alabama, a rare showdown between two of the country’s most storied programs.
With Beaver Stadium rocking, Penn State took the lead with a field goal on its first possession. But the Nittany Lions would manage only one more first down the rest of the first half as the Tide rolled to a 27-11 win.
“We certainly deserved a whooping today,” Paterno said. “I think we’ve just got a lot of work ahead of us.”
That became even more evident in the following weeks, as the Nittany Lions barely scraped out wins against Temple and lowly Indiana.
But the quarterback debate was eventually resolved _ enough, at least, so that the bruising running game and ferocious defense that had been Paterno’s formula for success could take over once again. By the time Penn State headed to Northwestern, where Paterno would equal Eddie Robinson’s record for most coaching victories, the Nittany Lions were tied with Wisconsin atop their Big Ten division and eligible for a bowl game at 6-1.