John P. Surma, the vice chairman of the board, delivered the news before a packed news conference at a hotel on the outskirts of town just after 10 p.m., with an audible gasp and several shrieks going up from the mixture of local and national media members and curious onlookers.
“Joe Paterno,” Surma said, “is no longer the head football coach, effective immediately.”
With that, the child sex-abuse scandal surrounding a longtime Paterno lieutenant reached its emotional peak on this badly shaken campus of 40,000 undergraduates, in a village known as Happy Valley.
“Right now, I'm not the football coach,” Paterno said in a brief statement released after the board’s decision, “and that's something I have to get used to.”
The board also voted to oust university president Graham B. Spanier, bringing to four the number of administrators, including Paterno, who have lost their jobs over the burgeoning scandal — in which Jerry Sandusky, Penn State’s longtime defensive coordinator, was arrested on charges of molesting at least eight boys between 1994 and 2009.
But it was the dismissal of the 84-year-old Paterno, who earlier in the day had announced his intention to resign at the end of this season, that threatened to bring the campus to a boiling point.
As students and alumni took to Twitter to plead with other students and Paterno supporters not to riot, reports were already surfacing of mobs of people amassing downtown, tearing down lamp posts. Another crowd, more somber and silent, gathered outside Paterno’s modest, one-story rancher home just off-campus.
A man sometimes referred to only half-jokingly as the most important man in Pennsylvania, a winner of an NCAA-record 409 games and two national titles, Paterno — known affectionately as “Joe Pa” — had been seen throughout college athletics as a titan and throughout the state as untouchable.
While the rest of the world wondered what took Penn State so long in firing the man who presided over the tarnished program, Penn State supporters wondered why Paterno couldn’t at least be allowed to say goodbye Saturday at the Nittany Lions’ final home game of the season, against Nebraska.
“I hesitate to use the word ‘godlike,’ because it’s a little strong, but he really is a mythical figure around here,” said Ben Jones, a Penn State student who covers the football team for the blog BlackShoeDiaries.com. “It’s hard to explain to people who don’t live here just how beloved he is.”
Surma, seated at a table in a hotel ballroom, with board chairman Steve Garban beside him and 20 trustees seated behind him, gave no firm reasons for Paterno’s dismissal, despite pointed and passionate grilling from media members — in a manner that blurred the line between journalist and fan — saying repeatedly that the board felt it “was necessary to make a change in leadership and set a course in a new direction.”