STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — The Penn State community awoke Thursday to gray skies, wall-to-wall coverage of Wednesday night’s extraordinary events on almost every television channel and 72-point, all-caps, single-word headlines – “GONE,” read the Centre Daily Times; “FIRED,” screamed the Daily Collegian — on the front pages of the local newspapers.
On the first day of the post-Joe Paterno era – a day after the Nittany Lions’ iconic head football coach was fired by the school’s Board of Trustees in the wake of a child sex-abuse scandal involving one of Paterno’s longtime lieutenants – students and other locals were still sorting out the raw emotions that had threatened to boil over the night before.
Thousands of students amassed along the streets lining campus late Wednesday night following the news of Paterno’s dismissal, touching off a riot that saw lamp posts torn down, a television-news truck overturned and rocks and bottles thrown at police, who responded at one point with pepper spray.
Ostensibly, the students were protesting the firing of Paterno, the 84-year-old face of the storied football program – which on Saturday will host No. 19 Nebraska in what will be the 12th-ranked Nittany Lions’ first game without Paterno on the coaching staff since 1949. He had been the head coach since 1966, amassing an NCAA-record 409 victories and two national titles and becoming synonymous with Penn State football, if not the university itself.
But even Paterno could not survive this scandal, in which his longtime defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was arrested Friday and charged with molesting at least eight boys between 1994 and 2009. Two other university administrators were charged with perjury for their parts in an alleged cover-up of the crimes, and on Wednesday night the Board of Trustees also voted to dismiss university president Graham Spanier.
It was Paterno’s dismissal that was the focus of the protestors’ venom late Wednesday night. Some held signs supporting him, and others chanted: “We want Joe! We want Joe!” Other, more peaceful groups congregated outside Paterno’s house not far from campus, and at a statue of Paterno outside Beaver Stadium.
Late Wednesday night, Paterno released a statement saying: “I am disappointed with the Board of Trustees’ decision, but I have to accept it. . . . I am grateful beyond words to all of the players, coaches and staff who have been a part of this program.”
On College Avenue, which runs alongside the campus, sanitation workers picked up trash Thursday morning, but there were virtually no other signs of the previous night’s turmoil. Students walked to class bundled up against the chill, many of them carrying cups of coffee. Almost no one seemed to be speaking.