By Mickey Furfari
For the Times West Virginian
I am deeply saddened by the tragic death of Joe Paterno last Sunday at 85 in State College, Pa.
I got to know him when he first came to Penn State with Rip Engle, the man he eventually succeeded as head coach of the Nittany Lions.
As sports editor of Morgantown’s Dominion News (which eventually became the Dominion-Post), I had the privilege of covering all West Virginia-Penn State football games — home and away — from 1950 through 1989.
The series ended in 1992. But Paterno continued to extend his legendary coaching career until he was dismissed by the Penn State Board of Trustees late last fall.
It is most unfortunate that one of Paterno’s former assistant coaches, Jerry Sandusky, allegedly was involved in a child molesting sex scandal. While Paterno was not ever charged in that terrible crime, he had notified his athletic director when he learned of a situation involving Sandusky and a young boy in 2002.
In a recent interview, the veteran coach said he wished he would have done more. But he had been cleared of any wrongdoing by a grand jury, which noted that he was very cooperative in testifying before the jury.
Paterno, the nation’s winningest coach ever at a major university with 409 wins, called an emergency meeting of his players in November at 10 a.m. one day and told them he was retiring at the end of the 2011 season.
This was made public at noon to the nation’s media.
However, it apparently didn’t satisfy the Penn State trustees.
A spokesman announced at a 9 p.m. news conference that night that Paterno was fired effective immediately.
Some people questioned whether such action by the school’s trustees was really necessary. So did I.
I had always liked and respected Joe Paterno. I counted myself among his multitude of friends and admired him for his many, many accomplishments and good deeds.
When I retired from the Morgantown newspapers in August of 1989, I received a handwritten note from Joe. It contained kind words and an invitation to attend his team’s games.
I also recall a year when he came to Morgantown to speak at an MHS sports banquet in the Hotel Morgan. He did not charge the school for his appearance.
After the banquet, he joined the late Tony Constantine, Morgantown Post sports editor, and me for sports chat until 3 a.m.
That’s the kind of person I remember. He also would visit with media types on the evening before football games in State College, Pa.
Besides his longevity and amazing success, I will never forget that he and his wife donated several million dollars to Penn State for library use and support in academic areas.
Joe Paterno also was the only football coach that I know who was invited to give the principal address to the school’s commencement graduation in 1973.
West Virginia defeated Penn State three consecutive years by quarterback Fred Wyant and WVU teammates in 1953-54-55. But the Nittany Lions dominated the all-time series during his tenure (25-2).
In the fall of 1984, WVU posted one of those two wins in a 17-14 thriller in Morgantown. But students flooded the field with nearly a minute remaining, and Paterno worked his way across the field and told WVU coach Don Nehlen, “Let’s just call it off” and conceded the Mountaineers had won the game.
That certainly showed the legendary coach’s class.
My sincere sympathy goes out to Sue Paterno, their five children and 17 grandchildren.
Joe Paterno’s death follows many months of anguish by not only the family and thousands who played under him, but by millions of admirers.
He was both a great man and a great coach who did so much for Penn State for more than a half century.
It is a shame that Paterno had to die with a broken heart.