'What if?' timeline: Joe Paterno

Joe Paterno always found a reason to stay at Penn State after joining the football staff in 1950. A look at some of the "fork in the road" moments which could have
Joe Paterno was smiling on the Penn State sideline in this 2009 photo, but his lengthy tenure came to a grim end. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

Joe Paterno first joined the Penn State coaching staff in 1950.

To put that in perspective for Canadian readers, some of who have wondered why there should be so much interest in the story, that was five years before Toe Blake took over as coach of the Montreal Canadiens. (For the record, Dick Irvin Sr. was then the Habs coach).

Over the next six decades Paterno became the winningest coach in U.S. college football, likely the most well-known person in the sixth most populated state of the union, a symbol to many of integrity in sports, a pitiable figure later on for his decreasing facility as a football coach, and finally, scorned for inaction after allegations were made that his former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was sexually assaulting young boys.

As with any tale that unfolds over decades, there were many forks in the road.

Here are some of the decisions, mostly made by Paterno, that kept him at Penn State through to the ignominious end.


Paterno's first major life decision after graduating and playing football at Brown University. Brown coach Rip Engle accepts an offer to coach at Penn State, and Paterno agrees to join as mentor he decides to accept Engle's offer to join the staff as a coaching assistant.


According to a 1973 Sports Illustrated profile of Paterno, when Engle was offered the head coaching job at USC in 1956, a vote was taken among his staff as to whether they would prefer following him to California or staying. The only vote of eight in favour of the new opportunity, according to the report, was Paterno's.


Yale had pursued Paterno for its head coaching job two years earlier but chose another candidate. They try again to no avail to lure Paterno back to the Ivy League.

Paterno, by now an associate coach widely believed to be the successor to Engle, cites "loyalties and deep rooted friendships" at Penn State as the deciding factor.


Not really much of a decision at all. Paterno succeeds the retiring Engle as head coach at Penn State.


Not reported at the time, Paterno in 2009 confirms a long-held belief that after Penn State's first of two undefeated seasons, he met with University of Michigan athletic director Don Canham.

"We talked, and he offered me the job [that went to] Bo Schembechler," Paterno said. "And once a year Don used to write me a letter and say, 'Thanks'"

Schembechler leads Michigan to at least a share of the conference title 13 times over the next two decades, with three Rose Bowl wins.

January 1969

A fascinating sequence of events and decisions that forever altered the fortunes of several people and three football franchises.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, who had never won a playoff game in decades of existence, reach out to Paterno, who said he was torn before ultimately turning down the offer to coach.

"The Steelers made me an extremely generous offer to become their head coach, an offer which not only would have afforded a great personal challenge but would have assured lifetime financial security for my family," said Paterno. "Previously pro football held little attraction for me."

The Steelers turn their attention to Baltimore defensive coordinator Chuck Noll, who according to the recent book  Badasses: The Legend of Snake, Foo, Dr. Death, and John Madden's Oakland Raiders was also a candidate coveted by Oakland Raiders owner and general manager Al Davis for their coaching vacancy (Davis had previously coached with Noll under Sid Gillman in San Diego).

Pittsburgh moves faster, and Davis "settles" on one of his assistants for the job, John Madden.

Beginning in 1971, at least one of Pittsburgh and Oakland is in the AFC title game for every year but one over the next decade. They meet each other three times in the conference championship, and account for seven Super Bowl wins between 1975 and 1984. Madden retires from coaching in 1977 but soon after becomes a ubiquitous television presence for three decades.

Paterno teams over the next 18 seasons would lose just 37 times, with three undefeated seasons and two national championships.

March 21, 1969

A small item in the local press reveals that former Nittany Lions player Jerry Sandusky is one of two new assistant coaches being added to the Penn State staff. Since graduating, Sandusky had worked athletics jobs at Juanita College and Boston University.

He helps out with the linemen, over the years gaining praise for his work with the team's linebackers. He eventually serves as defensive coordinator for many years.

January 1973

New England Patriots owner Billy Sullivan entices Paterno not only with a salary into the millions, but the potential to become both coach and general manager of the NFL club.

Paterno, 46, said he didn't want to be "just" a football coach.

"Here I can influence not only football players, but the rest of the student body."


In one of the earliest of what would be several similar declarations in the next decades, Paterno said he was only interested in coaching a few more years.


Penn State has its first losing season in over two decades. No one suggests their heralded 62-year-old coach has to go, but fans undoubtedly began to consider seriously consider life after Paterno.


The Nittany Lions win a total of just seven games, and although the 77-year-old Paterno has a contract that runs through the 2008 season, many think its time for him to go.

"I've got a [succession] plan," he told USA Today. "I know what the plan is. I just don't know when I'm going to implement it. I don't know what the timing is going to be."

Off the field


Paterno said in the recently published interview with Washington Post reporter Sally Jenkins that he had no idea that police were investigating a report of child abuse in 1998 from the mother of a child in Second Mile, Sandusky's charity for underprivileged boys.

District attorney Ray Gricar ultimately declined to move forward with a case against Sandusky. The reasons for that decision will never be known, as Gricar went missing in 2005.

July 1999

It is announced that Sandusky will coach just one more season and then retire from the team.

"I had a crossroads in my professional life, and I had all these dreams of being a head football coach and didn't feel that was going to happen," Sandusky tells local reporters. "At the same time, I had a tremendous passion, for The Second Mile and have been very fulfilled with everything I've done with it. My plan right now is to devote a lot more tune with The Second Mile."

Sandusky is allowed complete access to the football program's facilities despite having no official role with the team.


According to recent grand jury testimony: Former team quarterback Mike McQueary, then a graduate assistant coach, says he reported to Paterno in 2002 that he saw Sandusky sexually assaulting a young boy in a shower.

Paterno advised his athletic director, Tim Curley, but never followed up as to what was the end result of the claim.

According to several reports, Sandusky still had access to some team facilities after this date.

"I didn't know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was," Paterno told Jenkins. "So I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did. It didn't work out that way."