Legendary coach Paterno exits in storm of controversy
November 10, 2011 5:00 AM
Jim Prisching/Associated Press
Longtime Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was fired Wednesday.
By Ron Musselman Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Joe Paterno, the legendary Penn State University football coach with the jet-black hair, rolled up pants and formerly squeaky-clean image, won't get to call his last play.
The Penn State board of trustees did it for him Wednesday night, voting unanimously to fire Mr. Paterno, who was embroiled in a child sex-abuse scandal that has rocked this community and the college football world.
Mr. Paterno, 84, a college Hall of Famer and the winningest coach in NCAA Division I history, will be replaced on an interim basis for the rest of the season by long-time defensive coordinator Tom Bradley.
Mr. Paterno, with his wife Sue by his side, came to the door of his home at about 10:40 p.m. and addressed a group of 40 or so fans who had gathered on the front lawn of his modest house on McKee Street.
"Right now I'm not the coach, and I have to get used to that. I didn't think it was going to happen this way," he said, as he shook hands with the mix of students and adults, some with tears in their eyes, some who thanked him.
Bill Clark, Mr. Paterno's neighbor for 35 years said: "I'm still numb. I don't know what to say. When you say Penn State, you think of Joe Paterno."
"It's messed up. They are doing this to a man who is a big reason Penn State is what it is today," wide receiver Derek Moye, a graduate of Rochester High School, said on Twitter.
Hours earlier, Mr. Paterno had said in a statement that he planned to retire after the end of the season, but the trustees took that decision away. In that statement, he said he was "absolutely devastated" by the charges leveled against former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, who is accused of sexually assaulting eight boys over a 15-year period.
"I grieve for the children and their families, and I pray for their comfort and relief," Mr. Paterno's statement said in part.
Mr. Paterno, had demonstrated time and again that he was determined to leave on his own terms. As the final weeks of this football season wound down, and with it the last year of Mr. Paterno's three-year contract extension, many wondered whether he would finally call it quits. He said on more than one occasion, though, that he planned to continue coaching.
That question had yet to be answered when a state grand jury issued a report Saturday detailing the allegations against Mr. Sandusky. It said two Penn State officials -- athletic director Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, senior vice president for finance and business -- failed to report an assault against one boy, which occurred in a locker room shower in 2002, after being told about it by Mr. Paterno and by a graduate assistant who witnessed it. Mr. Curley and Mr. Schultz were charged with perjury and failure to report. Both deny the charges.
Mr. Paterno was not charged, and state Attorney General Linda Kelly said he did what he was legally required to do. But state police commissioner Frank Noonan said he thought others who were aware of the allegations had a moral burden to do more.
Mr. Paterno's statement Wednesday indicated he now understood that burden:
"... This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more."
After issuing the statement, Mr. Paterno met with his players and coaching staff for approximately 10 minutes Wednesday morning at the Lasch Football Building, where some of the alleged assaults took place, to inform them of his decision to retire at the end of the season.
Mr. Moye described it as a "very emotional" meeting. The team stood and applauded Mr. Paterno as he walked out.
"You almost got this feeling like this wasn't real," said quarterback Paul Jones, a Sto-Rox High School graduate. "It was like it was all made up. You wanted to believe as much as you could that it wasn't true.
"Then seeing him break down to tears, it made you realize how crazy it was. It made everything hit home. I never saw him cry before. It got to the point where he had to stop talking and gather his thoughts."
"I don't think we realize what's going on yet," quarterback Matt McGloin said. "We're all pretty upset with the news."
Mr. Paterno repeatedly stressed one point, telling the Nittany Lions (8-1, 5-0 Big Ten Conference) to go out and "beat Nebraska" on Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
It will be Penn State's first game without Mr. Paterno actively coaching since 1949.
Many former players reacted with a mixture of sadness and praise for Mr. Paterno, who attended his final practice Wednesday afternoon as the Nittany Lions' coach.
"His spirit will always live on. He will be a part of Penn State forever," said former Steelers running back Franco Harris, one of three Pro Football Hall of Famers to play for Mr. Paterno. "He helped mold who I am, both on and off the field."
Jack Ham, a Penn State All-American linebacker and another Hall of Famer who played for the Steelers and currently is the Penn State football radio analyst, said it's hard to believe Mr. Paterno is stepping down.
"For Joe Paterno to leave like this is hard to watch," Mr. Ham said. "I have known him for a long time. I know all the things he has done for college football, all the players who have come through the program, including me personally.
"He gave me an opportunity to play when I was an 18-year-old kid. He is a true Hall of Famer, a special man in my eyes."
Steelers punter Jeremy Kapinos said he, too, will forever be indebted to Mr. Paterno.
"Coming out of high school, I didn't have the best grades. He gave me an opportunity to get my grades up and said I could come play for him. I kept him at his word then and I'll take his word now. I'm forever indebted to JoePa.
"There are three groups of people in my life I owe everything to -- my parents obviously, my high school coach and coach Paterno."
Mr. Paterno, born Dec. 21, 1926, in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, succeeded his mentor, Rip Engle, as Penn State's head coach in 1966 after serving 16 years as an assistant coach under him.
A 1950 graduate of Brown University, Mr. Paterno had coached five unbeaten teams, won two national championships and been named national coach of the year five times. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in December 2007, and holds the record for most bowl victories (24) and appearances (37).
Mr. Paterno passed former Grambling coach Eddie Robinson to become the winningest coach in Division I late last month by recording his 409th career victory in Penn State's 10-7 triumph over Illinois.
He won his first game as Penn State's coach Sept. 17, 1966, against Maryland, 15-7, at Beaver Stadium. He was 38 at the time.
Penn State had an 87 percent graduation success rate under Mr. Paterno, according to the most recent data released last month by the NCAA.
He has coached 26 father-son combinations and his coaching tenure at Penn State, which began in 1950, has spanned the administrations of 12 U.S. presidents. More than 350 of his players have signed National Football League contracts, including 33 first-round draft picks. He also has coached 78 All-Americans and 47 Academic All-Americans.
"You certainly don't want to see the end of Joe's career be like this with all the issues that are out there," Mr. Ham said. "The victims out there are the real tragedy here.
"I'm not sure Joe Paterno is worried about his legacy."