He made it to the big-time without losing a sense of where he was — State College, population 42,000, a picturesque college town smack-dab in the middle of Pennsylvania.
Paterno and his wife, Sue, raised five children in State College. Anybody could ring up his modest ranch home using the number listed in the phone book under "Paterno, Joseph V." Anybody could walk up to offer good luck as he walked to home games.
Former players would parade through his living room, especially on a busy game weekend, for a chance to say "Hello."
For the most part, Paterno shunned the spotlight, though he had a knack for making a joke that could instantly light up a room.
"You guys have to talk about something. The fans have to put something on those — what do you guys call those things, Twittle-do, Twittle-dee?" Paterno cracked at one Big Ten media day.
He was referring, of course, to the social media site Twitter — and no, the technology-averse Paterno didn't have his own account.
Paterno had no qualms mocking himself or the media, with which he could be abrasive at times. Stubborn to a fault, Paterno also had his share of run-ins with his bosses or administrators, as might be expected for someone who has spent decades with the same employer.
His status didn't make him immune from external criticism. As his reputation grew, so did the spotlight on his on-field decisions and program as a whole.
In 2002, following a stretch of run-ins with officials over controversial calls, an effigy of a football official, yellow flag in hand, was seen hanging on the front door of Paterno's home. Though he never said how the doll got on the door, Paterno hinted his wife, Sue, might be responsible, and it was all done in fun.
After he started the 21st century with four losing seasons in five years, Paterno faced growing calls for his dismissal — once considered heresy in Happy Valley — during the 2004 season.
The next year, Penn State went 11-1 and won the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions capped the campaign with a thrilling 26-23 win in triple overtime at the Orange Bowl against Florida State and Paterno's longtime friend coach Bobby Bowden.
Following a messy split, Bowden left the Seminoles after the 2009 season after 34 years, finishing with 389 wins.
Asked in 2010 whether any contemporary coach would stick around as he and Paterno had, Bowden said: "Not likely. It doesn't seem to be the style nowadays." He cited high salaries and the demands that come with the big paycheck as reasons, along with the allure of professional coaching.
"And there doesn't seem to be the desire to stay in it as long as Joe and I have had," Bowden said.
To be sure, Paterno has had other opportunities — and they didn't all have to do with coaching. A 1950 graduate of Brown University, Paterno said his father, Angelo, hoped his son would someday become president. Paterno himself had plans to go to law school.
He also played football at Brown. A quarterback and cornerback, Paterno set a defensive record with 14 career interceptions — a distinction he boasts about on occasion to his team.
Law school never materialized. At 23, he was coaxed by Rip Engle, his former football coach at Brown, to work with him when Engle moved to Penn State in 1950.
"I had no intention to coach when I got out of Brown," Paterno said in 2007 at Beaver Stadium in an interview before being inducted into the Hall of Fame. "Come to this hick town? From Brooklyn?"
In 1963, a fellow Brooklyn native, the late Al Davis, became the general manager-coach of the Oakland Raiders of the AFL and offered Paterno the job of offensive coordinator. He turned Davis down in spite of an offer to triple his salary to about $18,000 and a new car.
Three years later, Paterno took over as Penn State's head coach after Engle retired. The New England Patriots offered Paterno the head-coaching job in the early 1970, only to be rebuffed.
When Engle and Paterno arrived, Penn State had seen 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" — in other words, inferior.
As the program turned into something much bigger than that, Paterno's fans always insisted it was more than simply about football and winning.
But the program hasn't been a perennial Top 10 contender, like it had been through the 1990s — not that Paterno measured success entirely by the outcome on the field.
"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, a conscience for a world often infiltrated by scandal or 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 consistently ranked among the best in the Big Ten. In 2010, Penn State's 84 percent rate trailed only Northwestern's 95, according to the NCAA.
In the ESPN special, Krzyzewski said Paterno had been able to "change how you teach ... without changing the values of how you teach."
CFT: Former Penn State signalcaller Steven Bench joined the South Florida Bulls, he announced on Twitter.
CFT: The University of Nevada is honoring longtime coach Chris Ault, who stepped down in the fall, by renaming the school's football field after him.
Video: Football from NBC Sports
HBO Real Sports: Bill O'Brien
Penn State football coach and 2012 National Coach of the Year shares the challenges in turning around a program shattered by scandal. Real Sports premieres Tuesday, May 21 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.
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