STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Penn State trustees fired football coach Joe Paterno and university president Graham Spanier amid the growing furor over how the school handled sex abuse allegations against a former assistant coach.
The massive shakeup Wednesday night came hours after Paterno announced that he planned to retire at the end of his 46th season, but the outcry following the arrest of former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky on molestation charges proved too much for the board to ignore.
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“The university is much larger than its athletic teams,” board vice chair John Surma said during a news conference. “The Penn State board of trustees tonight decided it is in the best interest of the university to have a change in leadership to deal with the difficult issues that we are facing.”
Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley will be interim coach and provost Rodney Erickson interim school president.
“The past several days have been absolutely terrible for the entire Penn State community,” Surma said, “but the outrage that we feel is nothing compared to the physical and psychological suffering that allegedly took place.”
Paterno said he was disappointed with the board’s decision, but accepted it and urged everyone to remain calm and respect the school.
“A tragedy occurred, and we all have to have patience to let the legal process proceed,” Paterno said in a statement late Wednesday night. “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.”
There was anything but a sense of calm on campus later Wednesday night. Police in riot gear dispersed about 2,000 students who took to the streets, crowds toppled a television news van and others kicked out its windows, and at least one photographer was pelted with a rock.
The students flooded downtown State College for about three hours. Officers used pepper spray at times to control the crowd. Some students chanted “We want Joe! We want Joe!” State College police said early Thursday they were still gathering information on any possible arrests.
Paterno received an envelope at his home Wednesday night 15 minutes before the board of trustees made its announcement, a source with first-hand knowledge told ESPN’s Joe Schad. A note inside contained a phone number for Paterno to call. He did so and was told by one of two board members on the receiving end “you are relieved of your duties.”
According to the person close to Paterno, the coach had a hard time grasping what was contained in the allegations against Sandusky.
“I think the board took one look at the frenzy going on and the understandably horrific subject matter and said we can’t have the focus on Joe for up to five more games,” the source said.
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarJoe Paterno and his wife, Sue, stood outside their home and thanked Penn State students and supporters following Wednesday’s firings.
A key question throughout the scandal has been why Paterno and other top school officials didn’t go to police in 2002 after being told by Mike McQueary, who is receivers coach now but was a graduate assistant at the time, that he had seen Sandusky assaulting a boy in a school shower.
A source told ESPN’s Schad that Paterno hopes to clarify what he was told by McQueary as soon as Thursday. According to the source, Paterno recalls McQueary “vaguely” referencing “fondling” or “touching” or “horsing around” by Sandusky and a youth. But Paterno never had the understanding that McQueary had witnessed a “sodomy” or “rape.”
Paterno has said he should have done more, while Spanier has said he was not told the details of the attack.
“Our great university has been rocked by serious charges against a former coach,” Spanier said in a statement Wednesday night. “The presentment by the attorney general describes acts that should never be tolerated or ignored. I was stunned and outraged to learn that any predatory act might have occurred in a university facility or by someone associated with the university.
“I am heartbroken to think that any child may have been hurt and have deep convictions about the need to protect children and youth. My heartfelt sympathies go out to all those who may have been victimized.”
Earlier in the day, Paterno said in a statement he was “absolutely devastated” by the case, in which Sandusky, his onetime heir apparent, was charged with molesting eight boys in 15 years, with some of the alleged abuse taking place at the Penn State football complex.
After the firings, Paterno shook hands with a couple of dozen supporters that were outside his house.
Later, his wife, Sue, was teary-eyed as she blew kisses to about 100 students on the lawn. “You’re all so sweet. And I guess we have to go beat Nebraska without being there. We love you all. Go Penn State,” she said.
Thousands of students also descended on the administration building, shouting, “We want Joe back!” then headed to downtown to Beaver Avenue. Almost all the students were decked out in Penn State gear.
Penn State The past several days have been absolutely terrible for the entire Penn State community. But the outrage that we feel is nothing compared to the physical and psychological suffering that allegedly took place.
” — John P. Surma,
vice chair of the board of trustees
The firings came three days before Penn State hosts Nebraska in its final home game of the season, a day usually set aside to honor seniors on the team.
Earlier Wednesday, Paterno talked to his team for about 10-15 minutes in an auditorium of the football facility on campus. Standing at a podium, he told players he was leaving and broke down in tears.
Players gave him a standing ovation when he walked out. Junior cornerback Stephon Morris said some players also were nearly in tears as Paterno spoke.
“I still can’t believe it,” Morris said. “I’ve never seen coach Paterno like that in my life.” Asked what was the main message of Paterno’s talk, Morris said: “Beat Nebraska.”
The ouster of the man affectionately known as “JoePa” brings to an end one of the most storied coaching careers — not just in college football but in all of sports. Paterno has 409 victories — a record for major college football — won two national titles and guided five teams to unbeaten, untied seasons. He reached 300 wins faster than any other coach.
Penn State is 8-1 this year, with its loss to powerhouse Alabama. The Nittany Lions are No. 12 in The Associated Press poll and the BCS rankings.
After 19th-ranked Nebraska, Penn State plays at Ohio State and at Wisconsin (No. 18 BCS, No. 16 AP), both Big Ten rivals. It has a chance to play in the Big Ten championship game Dec. 3 in Indianapolis, with a Rose Bowl presented by Vizio bid on the line.
After meeting Tuesday, Penn State’s board of trustees said it would appoint a committee to investigate the “circumstances” that resulted in the indictment of Sandusky, and of athletic director Tim Curley and a vice president Gary Schultz, who are accused in an alleged cover-up.
Paterno notified Curley and Schultz about the 2002 abuse charge and is not a target of the criminal investigation. Curley and Schultz have been charged with failing to report the incident to the authorities.
Sandusky, who retired from Penn State in June 1999, maintained his innocence through his lawyer. Curley has taken a leave of absence and Schultz has decided to step down. They also say they are innocent.
Surma said McQueary would retain his job for now.
The committee will be appointed Friday at the board’s regular meeting, which Gov. Tom Corbett said he plans to attend, and will examine “what failures occurred and who is responsible and what measures are necessary to ensure” similar mistakes aren’t made in the future.
[+] EnlargeJohn P. Surma
AP Photo/Matt RourkeJohn P. Surma, vice chair of the board, said Wednesday that “the university is much larger than its athletic teams.”
In Washington, the U.S. Department of Education said it has launched an investigation into whether Penn State failed to report incidents of sexual abuse on campus, as required by federal law.
Mark C. Sherburne, Curley’s acting replacement as AD, issued a statement Wednesday, saying the school is “devastated” by the allegations in the grand jury presentment against Sandusky.
“Our hearts go out to the children and their families,” he said.
“Every day we are entrusted with the lives of young people, and we do not — nor have we ever — taken that trust lightly,” Sherburne said. “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.”
Sandusky founded The Second Mile charity in 1977, working with at-risk youths. It now raises and spends several million dollars each year for its programs. Paterno is listed on The Second Mile’s website as a member of its honorary board of directors, a group that includes business executives, golfing great Arnold Palmer and several NFL Hall of Famers and coaches, including retired Pittsburgh Steelers stars Jack Ham and Franco Harris.
On Wednesday morning, Paterno said he planned to retire at the end of the season, but the board had other ideas.
In a statement, Paterno said: “I grieve for the children and their families, and I pray for their comfort and relief.”
He went on: “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.”