The Jacksonville State athletics director played for Paterno and is one of more than 120 former Penn State captains who penned letters to the iconic coach for a recently published book that, ironically, was delivered to Koegel just Friday.
Paterno died Sunday at age 85. His death came just 65 days after his son Scott said his father had been diagnosed with lung cancer. Mount Nittany Medical Center confirmed that was the cause of death, at 9:25 a.m.
The confirmation of Paterno’s death made it difficult for Koegel to concentrate on the presentation he was trying to finish in advance of today’s JSU board of trustees meeting.
“It’s a very sad day,” he said. “This reaches way beyond anyone who played for him. It goes to the Penn State family, the state of Pennsylvania and all of college football. He was such a legend, it goes to the United States itself.
“Some of the things that led up to this were not fun to watch, obviously, and the way he was told he was going to be fired was wrong; he made a mistake, but we don’t know the magnitude of that mistake even now … (but) what he has done for so many people for so long is a tribute to what he’s all about. He helped young people grow and mature both as a coach and somebody you could talk to and developed all of them to be better, stronger people.”
The latter part of his statement, of course, was reference to the child sex abuse scandal tied to former longtime Penn State assistant Jerry Sandusky, the fallout of which led to Paterno’s ouster after 61 years in the program — 46 as the head coach — as well as those of several university administrators.
While the end of Paterno’s tenure will be linked what Koegel called the “horrific incidents” of the scandal, he chooses to remember the positives of that legacy and clicked off his coach’s on-field career achievements during an interview Sunday as easily as sharing a close friend’s telephone number — 409 wins, most all-time in major-college football; 37 bowl games, two national championships and, in Koegel’s mind, a couple of near-misses.
He counts himself among those Paterno helped developed into better men.
He recalls vividly Paterno’s home visit more than 40 years ago after one of his high school basketball games that convinced him to choose Penn State over North Carolina.
“My mom absolutely adored the man,” he said. “She would’ve gone to school there the first time he talked to us, but I needed to get a feel for what was going to be the best for me. My family all thought I was going to go to North Carolina. Close to midnight that night I said I want to go to Penn State. I was just comfortable with coach Paterno and his staff.”
Koegel went on to become one of Paterno’s more than 70 All-Americans and 350 NFL players.
And the coach followed his former players well after they stopped playing for him.
Koegel said Paterno called the day his mother died and sent a blue and white floral arrangement to the funeral.
“Maybe that doesn’t happen too many places, maybe it does, but that’s what he did,” Koegel said. “That’s what he meant by family. ... He was the real deal.”
Several churchgoers Sunday expressed their condolences on Paterno’s passing to Koegel after services. He said the respect and interest people in Alabama have shown for Paterno and the Penn State program has been “very evident everywhere I’ve gone” since his arrival at JSU in May. There was even a well-wisher who attended the public meet-and-greet during Koegel’s interview because of the candidate’s ties to Paterno.
Koegel said he hasn’t seen his former coach in several years but plans to attend the funeral.
“I think the world of Joe Paterno and everything he did for me,” Koegel said. “He stood for so many great things and taught us so much. I learned a lot from coach Paterno on and off the field. I learned to be a man. There are many things about the way I go about my life and family, I learned through Joe. I’m thankful to this day for him.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.