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Paterno was born in Brooklyn, New York and attended Brown University, where he played football both ways as the quarterback and a cornerback.

Originally planning to be a lawyer, he instead signed on as an assistant football coach at Penn State in 1950, persuaded by his college coach Rip Engle who had taken over as Penn State's head coach. He soon coached the team to two undefeated regular seasons in 19. Paterno coached five undefeated teams that won major bowl games, and in 2007 he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as a coach.

Under Paterno, Penn State won the Orange Bowl (1968, 1969, 19), the Cotton Bowl (19), the Fiesta Bowl (1977, 1980, 1981, 1986, 1991, and 1996), the Liberty Bowl (1979), the Sugar Bowl (1982), the Aloha Bowl (1983), the Holiday Bowl (1989), the Citrus Bowl (19), the Rose Bowl (1994), the Outback Bowl (1995, 19) and the Alamo Bowl (19).

After Penn State joined the Big Ten Conference in 1993, the Nittany Lions under Paterno won the Big Ten championship three times (1994, 20), with the last two of those still awaiting official restoration to the record.

He had no apparent plans to retire, and contingents of fans and alumni began calling for him to step down.

Paterno rebuffed all of this and stated he would fulfill his contract until it expired 2008.

They defeated Florida State 26–23 in triple overtime in the 2006 Orange Bowl.

Penn State won at least 3 bowl games in each of the 4 decades that Paterno coached the entire decade, from 1970 thru 2009.

On July 23, 2012, the NCAA vacated all of Penn State's wins from 1998 through 2011 as part of its punishment for the child sex abuse scandal, eliminating 111 of the games Paterno had coached and won, dropping him from first to 12th on the list of winningest NCAA football coaches.

State senator Jake Corman and state treasurer Rob Mc Cord launched a lawsuit against the NCAA in January 2013 to overturn the sanctions on Penn State, on the basis that Freeh had been actively collaborating with the NCAA and that due process had not been followed, and as part of the settlement the NCAA reversed its decision on January 16, 2015, and restored the 111 wins to Paterno's record.

However, on November 9, the Penn State Board of Trustees rejected this disclosure and terminated his contract, effective immediately.

A critique of the Freeh report composed by the law firm King & Spalding and commissioned by the Paterno family disputed Paterno's involvement in the alleged cover-up and accused Freeh of making unsupported conclusions.

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