STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Former Penn State coach Joe Paterno died at Mount Nittany Medical Center here Sunday morning, according to a statement issued by his family. The Hall of Famer, who had been undergoing treatment for lung cancer since being diagnosed with the disease in November, was 85.
"He died as he lived," the statement said. "He fought hard until the end, stayed positive, thought only of others and constantly reminded everyone of how blessed his life had been. His ambitions were far reaching, but he never believed he had to leave this Happy Valley to achieve them. He was a man devoted to his family, his university, his players and his community."
This is a sad day for the Penn State family, said Keith Conlin, who played offensive tackle for Paterno from 1992-95.
Paterno finished his career as major-college football's all-time wins leader, having forged a 409-136-3 record in 46 years at the helm of the Nittany Lions. But that long career -- which began when the Brown graduate was hired as an assistant coach at Penn State in 1950 -- ended amid controversy.
The PSU Board of Trustees fired Paterno Nov. 9, with members later saying they did so because they felt Paterno could not be expected to continue to effectively perform his duties after the Jerry Sandusky scandal rocked Penn State and the school's storied football program.
On Nov. 18, Paterno's family announced that he had been diagnosed with lung cancer. He began treatment for the disease -- including chemotherapy and radiation -- and on Jan. 13 was hospitalized for what his family described as minor complications. He was also recovering from a fractured pelvis at the time.
Those close to the program insist Paterno's overall legacy will still be positive.
Even in spite of recent circumstances, Joe Paterno meant one hell of a lot to Penn State, said Penn State sports historian Lou Prato. There are a lot of individuals who helped turn Penn State from the cow college I attended in the 1950s to the world-class university it is today. But no one surpassed Joe in that regard.
His players were good students and even scholar-athletes, Prato added. And because they were winning games, he ultimately set a tone for the Board of Trustees, the faculty and the fan base.
Paterno, who coined such phrases as The Grand Experiment and later Success With Honor as hallmarks for a program known as much for graduating players as for winning games, coached 38 Academic All-Americans and 66 All-Americans.
In the meantime, he coached in more bowl games (37) and won more bowls (24) than any other college coach. Penn State captured national championships in 1982 and 1986, and enjoyed undefeated seasons five times under Paterno.
Conlin was a starting offensive tackle on Paterno's last unbeaten team, the 1994 squad.
He influenced the lives of a lot of men, Conlin said. I had a wonderful career at Penn State and learned life lessons every day that I still use. Aside from my father, Joe Paterno was the most influential man in my life.
In what would be the final months of his life, the iconic Paterno became a polarizing figure in a place known as Happy Valley.
Sandusky, who is facing charges of sexually abusing boys, was an assistant under Paterno from 1969-99. One of the alleged abuse incidents happened in a Penn State football locker room in 2002, and after learning about it from a graduate assistant Paterno passed the information on to his own superiors.
Nobody from the university reported the alleged incident to the police.
Paterno was not charged with any crime and was actually praised for giving truthful testimony to the grand jury that ultimately indicted Sandusky in early November of 2011. But Paterno came under intense criticism from the public and some elements of the media for not doing more to make sure the alleged act had been reported to police sooner.
Paterno would later admit, With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.
When the Board of Trustees fired him via telephone the night of Nov. 9, however, Penn State students rioted in protest. Paterno had announced his retirement, to be effective at the end of the 2011 season, earlier in the day.
He ended a prepared statement on his retirement by saying after he was finished coaching at Penn State, I will spend the rest of my life doing everything I can to help this University.
Paterno did not get the chance to finish out the season. Following his ouster, the board came under criticism for firing the Hall of Fame coach over the phone and for not giving specific reasons for why he had been fired.
It would take more than two months for board chairman Steve Garban and vice chairman John Surma to comment on the firing, and they did so via the prepared statement in which they said the board did not think Paterno could effectively perform his duties.
Former Penn State running back and NFL Hall of Famer Franco Harris and major university donor Anthony Lubrano were among the many who blasted the Board of Trustees for firing Paterno.
On Friday, Garban and Surma both stepped down from their leadership positions with the board, though they remained on it as voting members. Neither faced the media following the meeting in which their moves were made.
New chair Karen Peetz quickly admitted the board did not handle Paterno's termination properly.
We have been through a very difficult experience together, she said. We have tried to do the right things. All of us -- including the board -- with the wisdom of hindsight, could have done thing differently. We still have respect and gratitude for Coach Paterno's legacy and for his many contributions to Penn State.
Many of those contributions were financial. Paterno and his wife Sue have donated millions of dollars to Penn State through the years, including significant gifts that allowed the school to build the Paterno Library and the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center.
And though he was fired before he had a chance to retire, Paterno made good on his word to help Penn State as long as he lived. In December alone, Joe and Sue Paterno donated a total of $200,000 to various projects at the university.
Paterno is survived by his wife, five children and 17 grandchildren.