STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Joe Paterno’s head coaching career at Penn State began on Sept. 17, 1966 with a win over Maryland, and it ended Wednesday night, at the end of an extraordinary day, in the middle of an emotionally wrenching week, with a telephone call from the heads of the school’s Board of Trustees.
They informed Paterno, the iconic face of this storied football program, that he was being dismissed three games shy of the end of his 46th season.
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.”
Tom Bradley, Paterno’s defensive coordinator for the past 12 seasons, was named interim head coach, while university provost Rodney Erickson was named interim university president.
Some 24 hours earlier, with hundreds of students and supporters camped out on his front lawn chanting their support of him, Paterno had come out his front door to address the crowd, thanking everyone for their support and leading them in the ubiquitous cheer, “We are . . . Penn State!”
By Wednesday morning, through, Paterno had decided to step down. In his resignation statement, Paterno called the scandal “one of the great sorrows of my life,” saying, “I grieve for the children and their families,” he said, “and I pray for their comfort and relief.”
Paterno also took the extraordinary step of acknowledging his regret for not doing more to stop the abuse. According to a 23-page grand jury report, Paterno was informed by a graduate assistant in 2002 of an incident in which Sandusky had allegedly molested a boy in the showers at Penn State’s locker room, which the graduate assistant — later identified as Mike McQueary, currently Penn State’s wide receivers coach — had witnessed.
According to the grand jury report, Paterno reported the matter to his immediate superior, Athletic Director Tim Curley, but did not report it to the authorities — an oversight that has led to outrage nationally, with countless columnists and pundits calling for Paterno’s immediate ouster. Curley and another administrator, senior vice president for business and finance Gary Schultz, were charged with perjury and were removed from their jobs.
Late Wednesday afternoon, the U.S. Department of Education announced it would investigate the university’s handling of the Sandusky case.
Paterno, in his resignation statement earlier Wednesday, sounded defiant about his intention of finishing out this season — the Nittany Lions could have as many as five games remaining, including the Big Ten championship game and a bowl game — saying, “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.”
In an apparent signal of the university’s distancing itself from Paterno, his statement was not released through the school, and it did not appear on either the university’s main Web site or that of the athletic department. Instead, it appeared to have been released through an outside public relations firm.
Paterno informed administrators of his resignation Wednesday morning, then called a team meeting to inform his players — a meeting that ended with Paterno receiving a standing ovation, according to offensive lineman Chima Okoli.
“His last words,” Okoli said on a teleconference with reporters, “were definitely ones we hung on.”
Paterno then oversaw the team’s afternoon practice. Saturday’s game is not only a crucial one in the Nittany Lions’ quest for the conference title — Penn State is ranked No. 12 nationally in the Associated Press poll, and Nebraska is ranked No. 19 — but it is also senior day, in which, by tradition, the team’s departing seniors are honored before the game.
The game will go on as scheduled, but for the first time in more than 45 years the Nittany Lions will be coached by someone other than Joe Paterno.