Scott Paterno, the Hall of Fame coach’s son, said in a statement Friday that his father’s doctors are optimistic the 84-year-old Paterno will make a full recovery.
The news came shortly after Penn State said the NCAA would look into the school’s handling of a child sex abuse scandal involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. Paterno was fired by the board of trustees Nov. 9 for failing to do more an abuse allegation against Sandusky than report it to his superiors.
“Last weekend, my father was diagnosed with a treatable form of lung cancer during a follow-up visit for a bronchial illness,” Scott Paterno said in the brief statement.
The doctor’s visit came the same weekend the school played its first game since the 1960s without Paterno leading the Nittany Lions — Penn State lost, 17-14 to Nebraska.
“As everyone can appreciate, this is a deeply personal matter for my parents, and we simply ask that his privacy be respected as he proceeds with treatment,” Scott Paterno said.
Earlier Friday, The Citizens Voice of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., reported that Paterno had been seen Wednesday visiting the Mount Nittany Medical Center and was treated for an undisclosed ailment and released.
Paterno was fired last week by school trustees in the aftermath of accusations against former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, who is charged with sexually abusing eight boys over 15 years. Critics said Paterno should have done more to stop the abuse that a state grand jury detailed in a 23-page report — in particular, one assault in 2002.
Paterno initially announced his retirement effective at the end of the season. But university trustees fired him about 12 hours later, the evening of Nov. 9.
Longtime defensive coordinator Tom Bradley replaced Paterno on an interim basis. He broke the news to the Nittany Lions after the team arrived in Columbus, Ohio, for Saturday’s game against Ohio State.
“I told them sometimes words pale at a time like this. I felt they should hear it from us, exactly what it was, that we were told that it was a treatable lung cancer,” Bradley said. It’s just one of those things. It’s a tough time for the players.”
Former Penn State quarterback Todd Blackledge, now an ESPN analyst, said Paterno never mentioned the illness when he visited his former coach Thursday in State College.
“In a week or so of many surprises this was another one,” said Blackledge, who noted that Paterno was in good spirits when he saw him.
A Penn State spokesman in Columbus said Friday night that as far as he knew, Paterno never smoked.
To say his health problems added Paterno’s trouble during a rough period doesn’t begin to capture the last two weeks. The lurid Sandusky scandal has tarnished the reputation of a coach and a football program that once prided itself on the slogan “Success with Honor.”
The Hall of Famer’s 409 career victories are a Division I record. In all, Paterno guided five teams to unbeaten, untied seasons, and won two national championships.
Sandusky was once expected to succeed Paterno but retired in 1999 not long after being told he wouldn’t get the job.
Two university officials stepped down after they were charged with lying to a grand jury and failing to report the 2002 charge to police, an assault which allegedly took place in a shower in the football building.
The grand jury report said the attack was witnessed by Mike McQueary, a graduate assistant at the time. Now the receivers coach but on administrative leave, McQueary told the grand jury he went to his father first and then to Paterno, who in turn his boss but didn’t go to the police.
When the state’s top cop said Paterno failed to execute his moral responsibility by not contacting police, public outrage built and the trustees acted.
Besides the ongoing criminal investigation of Sandusky, the university announced last week it was conducting its own probe before the NCAA said Friday that college sports’ governing organization would do its own inquiry.
NCAA president Mark Emmert said in the letter to Penn State president Rod Erickson the probe will look at “Penn State’s exercise of institutional control over its intercollegiate athletics programs.”
That once was never a question with Paterno, regarded as college football’s model for running a clean program. He placed as much pride in graduating players as getting to bowl games, and consistently had Penn State among the top-rated academic programs in the country.
Paterno has donated millions back to the university, and his name graces a campus library — not a football facility or athletic complex.
Prior to his firing, Paterno pressed on with coaching in spite of a number of recent ailments. He often walked into news conferences fighting back sniffles, and Paterno often passed it off as nothing more than an annoying cold.
He was said to be in good health this preseason — getting back to his routine of walking around town — before a receiver accidentally blindsided him during preseason drills in August, leaving him with an injured right shoulder and pelvis.
Known for his stubbornness and high pain threshold, Paterno walked away from the collision and stayed on his feet for the rest of the practice period before being encouraged to get checked out by a doctor. The injuries forced him to spend most of the season in the press box.
During the 2010 offseason, Paterno scaled back personal appearances because of an intestinal issue and an adverse reaction to antibiotics prescribed for dental work.
Paterno ran practices from a golf cart in 2008 and spent much of that season in the press box after injuring his hip while trying to show players how to perform an onside kick in practice. Two years earlier, he broke his leg in a sideline collision during Penn State’s game at Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium in 2006.
“This is very unfortunate news and another sad note for our Penn State community,” said school president Rod Erickson, the replacement for Graham Spanier, who also was ousted the same night Paterno was fired.
“Our thoughts are with him and his family at this difficult time and we certainly pray for his speedy recovery,” Erickson said.
Lung cancer kills 1.4 million people around the world each year. In the United States, 221,130 new cases and 156,940 deaths are expected this year. The disease is typically diagnosed in older people. About 2 out of 3 people diagnosed with lung cancer are over age 65.
“There’s a significant number of people who are diagnosed in their 70s and 80s,” said chief medical officer Dr. Otis Brawley of the American Cancer Society.
Brawley has no involvement in Paterno’s treatment.
“Generally when I hear that a person has a treatable form of lung cancer, it means the person may very well benefit from surgery to remove a part of the lung,” Brawley said.
While the surgery can be invasive, people who undergo the operation “can do well after that,” he said.
The lights were dim Friday night at Paterno’s modest ranch home next to a park near the end of a dead-end street. A few TV photographers waited across the street for any sign of the coach.
About a mile away, a steady stream of fans arrived in pairs to take pictures at the life-sized bronzed statue of Paterno outside Beaver Stadium. Jill Varady, 24, of York, said she found out about Paterno’s illness after her aunt posted a comment on Facebook.
Despite the scandal, the school should now “definitely let (Paterno) finish the season, and then ... let him retire,” Varady said.
“We probably will never know everything that happened,” Varady said.
The illness didn’t change the perception of how Paterno handled the Sandusky situation, said Tessa Drawbaugh, 26, of State College.
“But as far as other than that, he’s an icon,” she said. “Everybody wants him to be well.”