STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Coach Joe Paterno is fighting for his job amid “eroding” support from Penn State’s board of trustees and a widening sex-abuse scandal and possible cover-up centered on former assistant and one-time heir apparent Jerry Sandusky.
Paterno’s regularly scheduled news conference was abruptly canceled Tuesday. A university spokesman cited “ongoing legal circumstances,” a reference to charges announced over the weekend that Sandusky molested eight young boys between 1994 and 2009, and that two PSU administrators who have since stepped aside failed to notify authorities of a 2002 incident reported by an eyewitness.
Late Tuesday night, the board said it would appoint a special committee to conduct an investigation into the “circumstances” that resulted in the indictments of Sandusky, athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz. 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.
The board also promised those responsible would be held “fully accountable.”
“We are committed to restoring public trust in the university,” the board statement concluded.
At least a thousand students descended on the administration building about 11 p.m., EDT, chanting “Joe Paterno!” over and over, along with Penn State cheers. Many held up their smartphones to take photos or simply light up the night. A few young men climbed flag poles.
About 10 police officers stood on the steps of the building, guarding it.
Paterno’s son, Scott, said his father was disappointed over the decision by PSU President Graham Spanier to cancel the news conference. Addressing reporters outside his parents’ house, Scott said Joe was prepared to answer questions about Sandusky — who maintains he is innocent — and further that his father plans to coach not only Saturday’s game against Nebraska, but for the long haul.
Hundreds of fans staged a raucous rally outside Paterno’s home. He appeared briefly, along with some family members, and thanked the crowd for coming.
“It’s hard for me to say how much this means,” the 84-year-old coach said. “I’ve lived for this place. I’ve lived for people like you guys and girls.”
Asked if he was still the coach, Paterno didn’t answer but a young woman who stood with her arm around him replied: “Now is not the time.”
As he returned to his house, Paterno stopped and pumped his fists above his head, yelling, “We are …”
“Penn State!” the crowd replied.
“We’re always going to be Penn State,” Paterno said. “I’m proud of you. I’ve always been proud of you. Beat Nebraska.”
At an afternoon practice, managers hastily put plywood boards over an exposed fence to block photographers’ view of the field.
Paterno, who earns about $1 million annually from the school, has been head coach for 46 years and part of the Penn State staff for more than six decades, and his old-school values pervade every corner of the program.
Over that span, the Nittany Lions won two national championships, but unlike many other Division I powerhouses, the program avoided run-ins with the NCAA. The team generates millions of dollars each year in revenues from attendance, TV rights and sponsorships, but it has stubbornly stuck with the basic white-and-blue uniforms that are now among the most recognizable in college football.
All those things have inspired pride in the region and fierce loyalty to Paterno, who is the winningest coach in Division I and one of the most respected in any sport. That lofty status, however, has been the subject of heated arguments in recent days, among students on campus, construction workers on the street and the PSU board of trustees.
A person familiar with the trustees’ discussions said support there for Paterno was “eroding,” but couldn’t gauge whether the board would take action. The same person said Spanier has also lost support ahead of Friday’s board meeting. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
While praising Spanier’s tenure at Penn State, an official of the American Council on Education, said, “The central issue for the board, which is charged with preserving and protecting the institution, is not the rearview mirror.”
“It’s the institution going forward,” added Terry Hartle, senior vice president at the council, the main umbrella organization representing colleges and universities nationally.
Much of the criticism surrounding Paterno has concerned his apparent failure to follow up on a report of the 2002 incident, in which Sandusky allegedly sodomized a 10-year-old boy in the showers at the team’s football complex. The eyewitness, Mike McQueary, is currently receivers coach for the team but was a graduate assistant at the time.
McQueary told Paterno about the incident the next day, and the coach notified Curley and Schultz, who in turn notified Spanier. Curley and Schultz have been charged with perjury and failure to report the incident to authorities, as required by state law.
Both men, as well as Paterno, testified that they were told that Sandusky behaved inappropriately in that 2002 incident, but not to the extent of McQueary’s graphic account to a state grand jury.
The same grand jury decided the testimony from Curley and Schultz, whose job at the time also gave him oversight of the campus police, were not believable. Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly said Paterno is not a target of the investigation, although the state police commissioner has chastised him and other Penn State officials for not doing enough to try to stop the suspected abuse.
“As you know, the kids that were the victims, I think we ought to say a prayer for them,” Paterno said Tuesday night.
Sandusky, 67, spent three decades on the Penn State staff before retiring in 1999, but continued to use school and athletic facilities — where prosecutors allege he molested several of the boys — as recently as two weeks ago. He often held football camps for youths on PSU satellite campuses and maintained an office at the Nittany Lions’ complex on the main campus.
Sandusky began working with at-risk youths after founding The Second Mile charity in 1977. It now raises and spends several million dollars each year for its programs. According to Internal Revenue Service documents, the foundation last paid Sandusky in 2007, when he received $57,000 as a consultant. He publicly severed ties in 2010.
Paterno is listed on The Second Mile’s website as a current 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.
Meanwhile, another potential victim has contacted authorities.
The man, now an adult, contacted the department on Sunday after seeing media accounts of Sandusky’s arrest, Lt. David Young at the Montoursville station said. Investigators took a statement from him and forwarded it to the Rockview station for officers there to pursue, Young said.
U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania said Tuesday he’s asked Education Secretary Arne Duncan to look into whether the university violated the Clery Act, which requires schools to publish an annual report of all criminal offenses that are reported to campus security or local police.