Joe Paterno was the winningest coach in big-time college football, a revered figure on the Pennsylvania State University campus and an exemplar of high standards who successfully combined academics and athletics in college sports. Yet, despite his stature, Paterno was unceremoniously fired late in the evening on Nov. 9 amid a wrenching sex-abuse scandal involving allegations that Paterno's longtime defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, molested at least eight young boys over a 10-year period during and after his tenure at Penn State.
Sandusky, who has pleaded not guilty, was indicted by a Pennsylvania grand jury on Nov. 4 on 40 counts of sexual abuse after a two-year investigation first publicly disclosed by Harrisburg's Patriot-News in March. The grand jury's 23-page report includes among its accounts from eight purported victims an allegation that Sandusky was seen by an assistant coach, Matthew McQueary, raping a young boy in the school's locker room shower on March 1, 2002, and that Paterno was told of the incident the next day.
Paterno reported the allegation the following day to his superior, Athletic Director Tom Curley, but apparently made no further inquiry or report about the accusation. Curley and Gary Schultz, a Penn State vice president responsible for overseeing the campus police, were indicted for perjury and failure to report. Paterno was not charged, but his limited response became the subject of debate on campus, among the Nittany Lions' legions of fans and throughout the country through print, broadcast and online media.
Paterno, 84, sought to quiet the debate with a statement on the morning of Nov. 9 saying he would end his 62-year coaching career at the close of the current season. In the statement, Paterno expressed regret over his response to the accusation against Sandusky. “With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more,” he said. But Paterno urged the university's Board of Trustees not to spend time discussing his status.
After a child sex-abuse scandal broke at Penn State, football coach Joe Paterno announced on Nov. 8 he would resign after this season. But the next evening the university board summarily fired him and the university's president. (Getty Images/Rob Carr)
Instead, the trustees unanimously decided to dismiss Paterno, effective immediately. Paterno was told of the decision in a phone call 15 minutes before it was announced publicly in a late-evening news conference broadcast live on CNN and ESPN. The trustees also forced the resignation of the university's president, Graham Spanier.
John Surma, vice chair of the Board of Trustees, resisted reporters' questions to specify the reasons for the dismissals. “These decisions were made after careful deliberations and in the best interests of the university as a whole,” he said.
Sandusky, 67, started at Penn State as a defensive line coach in 1969. In 1977 he founded a charitable organization, Second Mile, to help children with absent or dysfunctional families. The grand jury report charged Sandusky with molesting boys from the program as early as 1994. In 1998, Sandusky was alleged to have hugged a young boy while showering with him naked in the Penn State locker room. The incident was reported to campus police and to government authorities, but the case was closed without charges.
Sandusky retired the next year but continued to use Penn State athletic facilities. His keys to the facilities were taken away after the 2002 incident, but campus authorities did not attempt to identify the boy. McQueary, the assistant who reported the incident, was not interviewed by state authorities until 2010. He was put on leave when the scandal unfolded in November.
In an interview aired Nov. 14 on the NBC News program “Rock Center,” Sandusky acknowledged naked horseplay with boys but denied any sexual intent. “I say that I am innocent of those charges,” Sandusky told NBC sports journalist Bob Costas. “I have horsed around with kids. I have showered [with them] after workouts. I have hugged them, and I have touched their legs without intent of sexual content.” Interviewed the next day on NBC's “Today” show, Sandusky's lawyer, Joe Amendola, said he believed the boy in the 2002 incident had been located, “and if we have found him,” he “is telling a very different story.”
Paterno came to Penn State as an assistant coach in 1950 and became head coach in 1966. During his 46 seasons as head coach, he led Penn State to two national championships (1982, 1986) and amassed 409 victories through the 10-7 win over Illinois on Oct. 29. Paterno ranks behind only John Gagliardi, who notched 471 wins as coach at two Division III schools: St. John's College in Minnesota and Carroll College in Montana.
Paterno's firing made front-page and top-of-the-broadcast news on Nov. 10, with commentators' views about the dismissal ranging from sympathy to dismay to outrage. In the Los Angeles Times, columnist Bill Plaschke complained that Penn State “sold its soul to football coach Joe Paterno for the sake of riches and recognition.” But on ESPN.com, columnist Ivan Maisel said Paterno “stood for the ideals of virtue and honor” throughout his coaching days. “A career that should be celebrated,” Maisel concluded, “is sullied instead.”
— Kenneth Jost