Courts & Crime

Penn State fires Joe Paterno, president in abuse scandal fallout

Penn State trustee John P. Surma announces Joe Paterno's firing.
Penn State trustee John P. Surma announces Joe Paterno's firing. AP Photo/Matt Rourke

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — The most storied career in college football is over.

Penn State’s board of trustees voted Wednesday night to remove head football coach Joe Paterno, effective immediately, in the wake of a sexual abuse scandal involving longtime former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. Penn State President Graham Spanier was also fired, effective immediately.

Trustee John Surma said Wednesday night during a news conference at The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel that the board’s decisions on Paterno and Spanier were unanimous.

“These decisions were made after careful deliberations and in the best interests of the university as a whole,” Surma said.

Interim president Rodney Erickson and interim athletic director Mark Sherburne have appointed Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley as interim head coach. Surma said there is no change in the status of Penn State wide receivers coach Mike McQueary, who was later revealed to be the graduate assistant described in a grand jury report on Sandusky, or in the status of Paterno’s son, Jay, the team’s quarterbacks coach.

Paterno, the all-time leader in Division I coaching victories, was informed of the board’s decision by phone Wednesday night. He released a statement just after midnight.

“I am disappointed with the board of trustees’ decision, but I have to accept it,” Paterno said in the statement. “A tragedy occurred, and we all have to have patience to let the legal process proceed. I appreciate the outpouring of support but want to emphasize that everyone should remain calm and please respect the university, its property and all that we value.

“I have been incredibly blessed to spend my entire career working with people I love. I am grateful beyond words to all of the coaches, players and staff who have been a part of this program. And to all of our fans and supporters, my family and I will be forever in your debt.”

The board of trustees conferenced by phone Tuesday evening and convened at The Penn Stater for a 7 p.m. meeting Wednesday. At the 10 p.m. news conference, Surma took questions from reporters with the other board members sitting behind him.

“In consideration of all the facts and the difficulties that we are encountering during this time, it was the trustees’ view that it was in the best interest, long-term interest of our university, to make that change,” Surma said.

Bradley is scheduled to meet the media at 11 a.m. today in Beaver Stadium.

Earlier Wednesday, Paterno had announced that he would retire after the conclusion of his 46th season in a statement released by his family.

“I have come to work every day for the last 61 years with one clear goal in mind: To serve the best interests of this university and the young men who have been entrusted to my care. I have the same goal today,” Paterno’s first statement read. “That’s why I have decided to announce my retirement effective at the end of this season. At this moment the Board of Trustees should not spend a single minute discussing my status. They have far more important matters to address. I want to make this as easy for them as I possibly can.

“This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”

Less than an hour later, Paterno assembled his team for a squad meeting at the Lasch Building and informed the players of his decision. The coach shed tears during the short speech and received a standing ovation from his players.

“Obviously, everybody was visibly upset,” senior safety Drew Astorino said. “Joe’s been there for a long time. To have something like this happen is tough.”

The coach did not comment to the horde of reporters that has waited for him outside of both his home and the team’s football facility for the last two days. Paterno has not taken questions from reporters since he took part in the Big Ten coaches’ teleconference on Nov. 1.

Penn State’s athletic department, which is currently led by interim athletic director Mark Sherburne, issued its first public statement of the week on Wednesday afternoon.

“The Penn State Athletics family is devastated by the details in the Grand Jury presentment. Our hearts go out to the children involved and their families,” read the statement. “Every day we are entrusted with the lives of young people, and we do not — nor have we ever — taken that trust lightly. We are outraged that a valued trust has been broken. We can promise you that we are doing everything in our power to restore that broken trust. Everyone within athletics — coaches, administrators, staff and student-athletes — are committed to this pledge.”

Paterno’s all-time record is 409-136-3. He has led his teams to 24 bowl victories, more than any other coach, and he owns the sole distinction of having won the Rose, Sugar, Orange and Cotton Bowls. He won his 409th career game on Oct. 29 against Illinois, making him the winningest coach in Division I football history.

A week later, a grand jury released the findings of an investigation into Sandusky, who was charged with 40 counts of sexual abuse against eight different victims.

By Monday, Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley and Senior Vice President of Business and Finance Gary Schultz, who both testified before the grand jury in the Sandusky case, had been arraigned on charges of perjury and failure to report.

Although state Attorney General Linda Kelly said Paterno’s grand jury testimony was found to be credible, questions remained about how much the coach knew about crimes Sandusky allegedly committed both before and after his retirement in 1999, and whether Paterno had done enough by reporting an eyewitness account from then-graduate assistant and current assistant coach McQueary of one of the alleged crimes to Curley and Schultz.

Paterno released a statement Sunday that said he was not told of the specific actions contained in the grand jury report but added that McQueary had told him he had seen “something inappropriate involving Mr. Sandusky.”

“If this is true we were all fooled, along with scores of professionals trained in such things, and we grieve for the victims and their families,” the statement read.

Paterno was scheduled to meet reporters Tuesday for his regular weekly news conference in Beaver Stadium, but the university canceled that conference less than an hour before its scheduled start. He told reporters later that afternoon outside his house that he wanted to talk and would eventually answer questions, but as of press time had not spoken to reporters.

Both current and former players reacted to the news of Paterno’s resignation and to the allegations of abuse with sadness Wednesday.

“There’s a lot of pain, a lot of disappointment, frustration,” said former safety Lee Rubin, who played for both Paterno and Sandusky in the early 1990s. “You’ve got to remember, all of the emphasis and the focus has been put on a few people. The alumni, current students and former players say you can’t throw away what we believe the program and the university stood for.”

Rubin, like several other players reached Wednesday, expressed grief and sorrow for Sandusky’s alleged victims. The coach’s retirement, for many, was only a small part of the story.

“I’m extremely saddened that Joe has to retire under this decision,” said Rich Mauti, a former wide receiver. “But I’m not so sure he wouldn’t have retired after this season anyway. It doesn’t take away from the history and all the people he’s touched and the things that he’s done, but it leaves a huge asterisk next to the legacy he’s developed.”

That legacy was rivaled by few others.

Born Dec. 21, 1926, in Flatbush, N.Y., Paterno was the eldest son of Florence de la Salle and Angelo Lafayette Paterno, who had three other children, George, Franklin, who died at 15 months, and Florence.

Paterno married Suzanne Pohland in 1962, the year she graduated from Penn State. All five of their children — Diana Giegerich, Mary Kathryn Hort, David, Joseph Jr. (Jay) and George Scott — are also Penn State graduates. Jay has served his father as an assistant coach since 1995. George Paterno, who died in June 2002, served as color commentator on radio broadcasts of Penn State football games from 1976-1999.

Paterno, a quarterback and defensive back, played for Rip Engle at Brown University, then followed his coach to State College in 1950 and became his graduate assistant. Paterno’s original plan was to become a law student but he fell in love with coaching, and he took over the program after Engle stepped down following the 1965 season.

The Nittany Lions had been successful under Engle but Paterno quickly took the team to new heights. In just his third season as a head coach, Penn State went 11-0 and won all 11 games the following season. Paterno and his team were denied national titles by the pollsters in both seasons, and again during a 12- 0 campaign in 1973.

Finally, in 1982, the Nittany Lions defeated Georgia in the Sugar Bowl to win Paterno’s first national championship, and followed that up four years later with a memorable win over Miami in the Fiesta Bowl for another national title.

That would be the last time a Paterno team would play for the national championship. In 1994, a high-powered offense helped his team win all 11 of its regular-season games and the Rose Bowl, but the Nittany Lions finished second to Nebraska in the polls. Penn State lost at least two games in each of the 16 seasons since and won just two more Big Ten championships.

The turn of the century marked a mix of milestones and struggles for Paterno and his squad. He won his 324th game to pass legendary Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant in 2001, but that was in the midst of what would become four losing seasons in five years. After the 2004 season, a group of university administrators asked Paterno to consider relinquishing his post. He declined and his team responded with an 11-1 season in 2005.

Paterno had to endure more than losses during the next few years. When the Nittany Lions traveled to Wisconsin in 2004, quarterback Michael Robinson was knocked out of the game and out cold by a vicious hit from Erasmus James. Though Robinson eventually recovered and returned later in the season, his injury shook Paterno, who was informed later that night that his son-in-law, Chris Hort, had suffered a serious head injury in a bicycling accident back in State College that day.

Two years later, Paterno found more adversity waiting for him in Madison. Wisconsin linebacker DeAndre Levy and Penn State tight end Andrew Quarless barreled into the 79-year-old coach on the sideline, resulting in a broken leg and torn knee ligaments for Paterno, who missed one game and coached two others from the press box.

In 2008, a nagging leg injury caused by an onside kick attempt gone awry sent Paterno back to the press box for seven games, and he had hip replacement surgery after the season. During the 2010 season, he was slowed by intestinal problems. Paterno had worked his way back into physical shape by walking several miles a day during this past summer, but still entered the season in pain after a suffering a broken hip and shoulder in a preseason collision with wide receiver Devon Smith.

Because of those injuries, Paterno coached all but two different first halves of Penn State’s first nine games from the press box and used a golf cart to get around during practices. It helped fuel speculation that he would not return in 2012.

“He needs to be hands-on with the squad,” said former Penn State linebacker Jack Ham. “I’m sure it’s been very frustrating for him. In the same vein, he didn’t want to be a distraction for his players on the field. He made the intelligent decision to be in the box.”

Ham asked Paterno to present him when he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1988. Nineteen years later, Paterno joined the Hall. A group of more than 150 former players attended a reception in Paterno’s native New York the night before he was formally welcomed into college football’s most exclusive fraternity.

That turnout reflected the bond between Paterno and his players, who often referred to him with the informal “Joe” but revered him as though he were a national dignitary. When asked why they chose to attend and play at Penn State over the nation’s other marquee programs, many of his players answered simply, “To play for Coach Paterno.”

A good part of Paterno’s legacy, though, came from the expectations he set for his players away from the field. His “Grand Experiment” was to field teams of athletes who could excel on the field as well as in the classroom. His teams consistently finished with higher graduation rates than the majority of their peers, and he coached 38 first-team Academic All-Americans in his 46 seasons.

He and his wife were generous donors to the university, giving more than $3 million to the Penn State library, which named a wing in the family’s honor.

Paterno was a unique voice in college football for his experience as well as his ideals. He often spoke with candor about his desire for a playoff system and about issues affecting student-athletes, such as providing stipends, scholarship restrictions and more.

Paterno also guarded his program closely, even as social media made it easy for information about his team to spread rapidly. His practices were closed, the names of his recruits were rarely released and freshmen, with a few exceptions, were off limits to the media.

Paterno banned facial hair and jewelry from his locker room, but he came down much harder on players who cut class or ended the semester with unsatisfactory marks. To make his point, he would have a player’s locker cleaned out, suspend him from games or practices or, in some cases, throw him off the team completely.

In the early part of his career, as he often liked to say, he would punish players who had gotten into other kinds of trouble — which may or may not have involved local police — by “running their rear ends off” in private, pre-dawn workouts.

By the mid 2000s, though, his players’ indiscretions were no longer indiscreet.

A string of off-field troubles, which included two public brawls involving several Nittany Lions and was chronicled in an ESPN “Outside the Lines” segment in the summer of 2008, raised the once-unthinkable question of whether a coach who made his name doing things the right way had lost control of his program.

“We’ve had problems,” Paterno said a few days before the segment aired. “We tried to handle them in the best way. I wouldn’t want anybody else to handle them.”

Paterno’s career is over in part because of the way he handled — or did not handle — the information McQueary relayed to him nine years ago, yet the coach maintained supporters even through what has been the most trying week of his career. After the announcement of his firing, students who had gathered at Old Main streamed downtown.

The day before, students once again camped in “Paternoville” at Beaver Stadium, only a few yards from the statue of Paterno, and hundreds of students walked across campus to the coach’s house for a rally.

Paterno spoke to that group Tuesday, revealing the feelings he has for a university that has employed him for parts of seven decades.

“We’re always gonna be Penn State, regardless of what happens to certain people,” he told those supporters outside his home on Tuesday night.

Bradley, who played for Paterno, is in his 33rd season as a Penn State assistant. He has been the defensive coordinator since 2000, when he replaced Sandusky. The current Nittany Lions are 8-1 and ranked 12th in the nation heading into Saturday’s home game against Nebraska. They spent most of Wednesday preparing for that game thinking Paterno would be in the press box.

Instead, he won’t be leading the team at all.

“To us, he’s just our head football coach,” Astorino said Wednesday afternoon. “I know that’s tough to believe for a lot of people but that’s how we’ve grown to know him. We’re going to miss him and I think a lot of people in the future are going to miss him as well.”

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