The winningest coach in major college football history was fired Wednesday night, sending angry students into the streets where they shouted support for Paterno and tipped over a news van.
Also relieved of duty was Penn State president Graham Spanier. Both were ousted by a board of trustees fed up with the damage being done to the university’s reputation by a child sex-abuse scandal involving Paterno’s one-time heir apparent.
“Right now, I’m not the football coach. And I’ve got to get used to that. After 61 years, I’ve got to get used to it,” the 84-year-old Paterno said, speaking outside his house. “Let me think it through.”
Paterno had earlier in the day announced his intention to retire at the end of the season, his 46th.
It didn’t matter.
“I’m not sure I can tell you specifically,” board vice chair John Surma replied when asked at a packed news conference why Paterno had to be fired immediately. “In our view, we thought change now was necessary.”
As word of the firings spread, thousands of students flocked to the administration building, shouting, “We want Joe back!” and “One more game!” They then headed downtown to Beaver Avenue, where about 100 police wearing helmets and carrying pepper spray were on standby. Witnesses said some rocks and bottles were thrown, a lamppost was toppled and a news van was knocked over, its windows kicked out.
State College police said early Thursday they were still gathering information on any possible arrests.
The decisions to oust Paterno and Spanier were unanimous, Surma said. Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley will serve as interim coach, and the university scheduled a news conference with him for Thursday morning. Penn State hosts Nebraska on Saturday in the final home game of the season, a day usually set aside to honor seniors on the team.
Provost Rodney Erickson will be the interim school president.
Paterno had come under increasing criticism – including from within the community known as Happy Valley – for not doing more to stop the alleged abuse by former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, who has been charged with molesting eight boys over 15 years. Some of the assaults took place at the Penn State football complex, including a 2002 incident witnessed by then-graduate assistant and current assistant coach Mike McQueary.
McQueary went to Paterno and reported seeing Sandusky assaulting a young boy in the Penn State showers. Paterno notified the athletic director, Tim Curley, and a vice president, Gary Schultz, who in turn notified Spanier. Curley and Schultz have been charged with failing to report the incident to authorities, and Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly earlier this week refused to rule out charges against Spanier.
Paterno is not a target of the criminal investigation, but the state police commissioner called his failure to contact police himself a lapse in “moral responsibility.”
Paterno said in his statement earlier Wednesday that he was “absolutely devastated” by the abuse case.
“This is a tragedy,” Paterno said. “It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”
The Penn State trustees had already said they would appoint a committee to investigate the “circumstances” that resulted in the indictment of Sandusky, and of Curley and Schultz. The committee will be appointed Friday at the board’s regular meeting, which Gov. Tom Corbett said he plans to attend, and will examine “what failures occurred and who is responsible and what measures are necessary to ensure” similar mistakes aren’t made in the future.
In Washington, the U.S. Department of Education said it has launched an investigation into whether Penn State failed to report incidents of sexual abuse on campus, as required by federal law.
“The Penn State board of trustees tonight decided it is in the best interest of the university to have a change in leadership to deal with the difficult issues that we are facing,” Surma said.
“The past several days have been absolutely terrible for the entire Penn State community. But the outrage that we feel is nothing compared to the physical and psychological suffering that allegedly took place.”
Sandusky, who announced his retirement from Penn State in June 1999, maintained his innocence through his lawyer. Curley has taken a leave of absence and Schultz has decided to step down. They also say they are innocent.
Sandusky founded The Second Mile charity in 1977, working with at-risk youths. It now raises and spends several million dollars each year for its programs. Paterno is listed on The Second Mile’s website as a member of its honorary board of directors, a group that includes business executives, golfing great Arnold Palmer and several NFL Hall of Famers and coaches, including retired Pittsburgh Steelers stars Jack Ham and Franco Harris.
The ouster of the man affectionately known as “JoePa” brings to an end one of the most storied coaching careers – not just in college football but in all of sports. Paterno has 409 victories – a record for major college football – won two national titles and guided five teams to unbeaten, untied seasons. He reached 300 wins faster than any other coach.
Penn State is 8-1 this year, with its only loss to powerhouse Alabama. The Nittany Lions are No. 12 in The Associated Press poll.
After 19th-ranked Nebraska, Penn State plays at Ohio State and at No. 16 Wisconsin, both Big Ten rivals. It has a chance to play in the Big Ten championship game Dec. 3 in Indianapolis, with a Rose Bowl bid on the line.
Paterno has raised millions of dollars for Penn State in his career, and elevated the stature of what was once a sleepy land-grant school. Asked why he was fired over the phone, Surma said, “We were unable to find a way to do that in person without causing further distraction.”
At Paterno’s house, his wife, Sue, was teary-eyed as she blew kisses to the 100 or so students who gathered on the lawn in a show of support.
“You’re all so sweet. And I guess we have to go beat Nebraska without being there,” she said. “We love you all. Go Penn State.”