STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — The day was always coming. The old coach was 84, and each new season brought questions whether it would be his last. No one, though, expected it to happen quite like this.
The Penn State board of trustees fired football coach Joe Paterno Wednesday night amid the growing furor over how the school handled sex abuse allegations against an assistant coach. The massive shakeup came hours after Paterno announced that he planned to retire at the end of his 46th season.
Earlier that day a tearful Paterno, who won more games than any coach in major college football history, stood in an auditorium in the Penn State complex and told disbelieving players that he planned to retire at the end of the season.
Not because he was too old or couldn’t win anymore, but because of a child sex abuse scandal involving a longtime assistant coach and onetime heir-apparent.
“Success With Honor” was ending in disgrace, and the tears flowed from behind the thick eyeglasses.
“In all the clips I’ve seen of him, I’ve never seen him break down and cry,” quarterback Paul Jones said. “And he was crying the whole time today.”
Cornerback Stephon Morris said some players also were nearly in tears themselves.
“I still can’t believe it. I’ve never seen Coach Paterno like that in my life,” Morris said.
“He spent his whole life here, and he dedicated everything to Penn State,” added safety Nic Sukay. “You could really feel that.”
Paterno said he wanted to finish his 46th season with “dignity and determination.” But the university’s board of trustees forced him to leave sooner.
The board also ousted school president Graham Spanier.
In Washington, the U.S. Department of Education said Wednesday it has launched an investigation into whether Penn State failed to report incidents of sexual abuse on campus, as required by federal law.
Paterno said in a statement he was “absolutely devastated” by the case, in which his former assistant and onetime heir apparent, Jerry Sandusky, has been charged with molesting eight boys in 15 years, with some of the alleged abuse taking place at the Penn State football complex.
“This is a tragedy,” Paterno said. “It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”
Paterno has come under harsh criticism — including from within the community known as Happy Valley — for not taking more action in 2002 after then-graduate assistant and current assistant coach Mike McQueary came to him and reported seeing Sandusky in the Penn State showers with a 10-year-old boy. Paterno notified the athletic director, Tim Curley, and a vice president, Gary Schultz.
Paterno is not a target of the criminal investigation, although Curley and Schultz have been charged with failing to report the incident to the authorities.
The retirement announcement 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. Instead, this year will be Paterno’s goodbye to the Beaver Stadium faithful.
Paterno appeared on the practice field later Wednesday in his signature khakis and navy windbreaker. Within five minutes of the start of practice, PSU officials told reporters to step back and then erected tall wooden boards in front of the fence.
The decision to retire by 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 only loss to powerhouse Alabama. The Nittany Lions are No. 12 in The Associated Press poll.
After 19th-ranked Nebraska, Penn State plays at Ohio State and at No. 16 Wisconsin, both Big Ten rivals. It has a chance to play in the Big Ten championship game Dec. 3 in Indianapolis, with a Rose Bowl 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 indictments of Sandusky, Curley and Schultz in the scandal and alleged cover-up.
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.
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 again.
In his statement, Paterno said the trustees should “not spend a single minute discussing my status” and have more important matters to address.
According to the grand jury report, Paterno informed Curley and Schultz of his meeting with the graduate student but said Sunday he was not told about the “very specific actions” of the sexual assault.
Critics say Paterno, whose program bore the motto “Success With Honor,” should have done more.
“When an institution discovers abuse of a kid, their first reaction was to protect the reputation of the institution and the perpetrator,” John Salveson, former president of the Pennsylvania chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said this week.
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, Sandusky’s portrait on a mural in State College was painted over.
In his 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.”
At “Paternoville,” the tent city outside Beaver Stadium where students camp out before home games, news of Paterno’s resignation spread quickly.
“He’s been a staple here for so long,” said Troy Weller, a junior from Hatboro, Pa. “It’s kind of hard to realize there’s going to be change.”
There was little evidence on the rest of the bucolic campus that an era is ending. Students hustled to and from class, and the patio of a restaurant across the street from campus was filled with people laughing and basking in the warm, sunny November day.
There was only a scattering of Paterno supporters in front of his modest home — nothing like the hundreds of students who staged a raucous vigil Tuesday night and chanted his name. There were a few deliveries to the house — flowers, what looked like a fruit basket — and one student dropped a letter into the mailbox.