On the last Saturday in October, an early snowstorm swept into State College. Still, more than 97,800 football fans in parkas and hoodies packed the stands of Beaver Stadium at Penn State University to watch what they hoped would be a historic game.
Penn State faced the University of Illinois on the field that day. Coaching from the press box was legendary head coach Joe Paterno, who was on the verge of having more wins than any Division I coach in history and already had a bronze statue in his likeness outside the stadium.
Watching from the posh Nittany Lion Club was Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant coach who negotiated lasting ties with Penn State in his retirement package. Also watching: Penn State President Graham Spanier, who had led the university for 16 years and took an active role in the football program, and Athletic Director Tim Curley, a lifelong State College resident who worked his way up the department.
Months earlier, Paterno, Spanier and Curley testified before a grand jury in an investigation of Sandusky, who was accused of sexually abusing several young boys he met through his charity, The Second Mile.
Two days before the Illinois game, Spanier and Curley attended an 8 p.m. emergency meeting with the university's general counsel, who had been told that Sandusky would soon be indicted on sex abuse charges, according to an investigation commissioned by the university. She was also told that two administrators, one being Curley, would likely be charged with not reporting child abuse to authorities.
The day before the game, on Friday, Spanier and the general counsel hosted a series of meetings, including one with the communications staff. By 1 p.m. that day, Spanier was circulating a draft statement that expressed “unconditional support” for the two administrators. One staff member would later call that wording “horrendous,” but said no one had the guts to tell the legendary president.
As the onset of chaos hovered above Happy Valley, the football game continued.
If Penn State were to win this game, it would be Paterno's 409th win during his 46-year career, breaking the record for Division I coaches. And it seemed possible, seeing as the Nittany Lion had beaten Illinois 14 of the 18 times they had played since 1954.
It had already been a busy month for Paterno: The first weekend in October, he celebrated his 700th game on the Penn State coaching staff. The next week, during the home game opener, Paterno commemorated the 25th anniversary of Penn State's victory over the Miami Hurricanes in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl. Many point to that match-up as the moment when Penn State’s football program cemented its pristine image.
“The general feeling was that Miami was just a bunch of rogues,” Beano Cook, a college football historian, once told ESPN. “They made Penn State good because everyone wanted to say Miami is evil, and so it became good versus evil.”
Sandusky was part of the anniversary festivities, as he coached during that bowl game. For years, Sandusky was considered Paterno’s successor and his office was the closest one to Paterno's office.
Sandusky unexpectedly retired in 1999, about a year after university police investigated a mother’s complaint that Sandusky had inappropriately touched her 11-year-old son in a Penn State locker room shower.
Investigators for Penn State later concluded that there was no evidence that Sandusky's retirement was connected to that complaint. Notes that Paterno reportedly used when talking to Sandusky about retiring read: "If there were no 2nd Mile then I believe you belief [sic] that you probably could be the next Penn State FB Coach. But you wanted the best of two worlds… You don't have the luxury of doing both."
Sandusky's retirement package included an “unprecedented” lump-sum payment of $168,000, an ”emeritus” academic rank that gave him lifetime access to campus facilities, and a guarantee that he could watch football games from the invite-only Nittany Lion Club.
In July 2011, following a local news report of the grand jury investigation, Curley deleted Sandusky's name from the invitation list for the 2011 season. In early September, Sandusky's wife called the Nittany Lion Club staff to ask about their tickets, according investigators for the school. Curley added them back to the list, and Sandusky attended six home games, including the Illinois game on Oct. 29. (Following his arrest on Nov. 5, Sandusky called the club to let them know he would not attend the last game of the season.)
Like many top Penn State officials, Curley spent his whole career at the athletic department and worked his way up the chain while watching coaching greats like Paterno and Sandusky. Later, university employees would be asked by investigators to describe Curley, calling him Paterno's ”errand boy” and a man who was “loyal to a fault.” Sandusky was described as a celebrity who was treated “like a god.”
By halftime, no one had scored.
Paterno coached from the press box that day. The coach, who was in his 80s, had been accidentally knocked over by a player during practice in August, fracturing his pelvis and injuring his right shoulder. A doctor ordered him away from the sidelines for most of the season. Weeks later, Paterno's family would announce that he was battling lung cancer. He would only live another three months, during which his legacy and integrity would be questioned.
In the third quarter, Illinois pulled ahead by seven. Late in the second-half, as the game was held up by a replay, snowballs flew onto the field from the Penn State student section. (”The snowballs missed the players -- much like most of the passes Saturday,” an Associated Press sports writer would later muse.)
With just seven minutes on the clock, Penn State kicked a field goal, putting points on the score board. With less than two minutes on the clock, a young rising star on the team, running back Silas Redd, got his hands on the ball and ran for a touchdown.
The Nittany Lions won, 10 to 7. And Paterno won yet another coaching record. The score board announced: “Congratulations Coach Paterno. Winningest Coach in Division I College Football.”
After the game, Spanier and Curley presented Paterno with a plaque that read: “Joe Paterno. Educator of Men. Winningest Coach. Division One Football.” Photos were snapped of the smiling, powerful leaders of Penn State.
Fans waited in the stands, shivering in the cold, to watch a broadcast of the post-game ceremony, according to the Associated Press. Paterno's voice filled the football stadium: “This is something I'm very proud of… Something like this means a lot to me, an awful lot.” He ended his message by saying: “For all the fans out there, thanks for sitting through that today… You’ve got to be nuts!”
The following Saturday was a bye-week.
Sandusky was arrested. Curley and Gary Schultz, a vice president for finance and business, were charged with failure to report child abuse and lying to the grand jury. (Both maintain their innocence. A trial date has yet to be set.)
It would all be okay, Spanier kept telling trustees and others, including one trustee who recalls the president boasting that he managed crises every day at Penn State and he could handle this. Spanier would later tell investigators that this “stuck me as a Second Mile issue. This did not strike me as a Penn State issue.”
On the following Wednesday night, as the football team prepared to play the University of Nebraska, trustees fired Paterno and Spanier.
In January, Paterno died of lung cancer at 85. In June, Sandusky was found guilty on 45 of 48 charges of child sex abuse. This month, an internal investigation commissioned by Penn State trustees concluded that the legendary coach and others actively covered up Sandusky's actions and failed to protect the children involved.
Early Sunday morning, Paterno's statue was removed from its perch, along with the three words on a nearby stone wall that were used to describe him: Educator. Coach. Humanitarian.
A crew of workers in hard hats took the 7-foot, 900-pound bronze statue into Beaver Stadium, a place where nearly 98,000 people had once gathered in the freezing cold hoping to watch a historic football game. They did. That was Paterno’s last football game.
Here’s more of The Post’s coverage of Penn State:
Front-page article: Freeh report lambastes Penn State leadership
Sally Jenkins column: The truth is, Joe Paterno lied