Joe Paterno’s 46-year run as one of college football’s most respected and successful coaches ended abruptly and ingloriously Wednesday night when Penn State’s Board of Trustees, in an executive session, fired Paterno and school President Graham Spanier in the wake of a child-abuse sex scandal that has rocked the campus and the nation.
John P. Surma, vice chairman of the board, said the decision was unanimous.
“It was necessary for us to make a change in leadership and set a course for a new direction,” Surma said.
Paterno, Spanier and Penn State have been under siege since former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was charged last weekend with 40 counts of sexual abuse of children.
The 84-year-old Paterno, in what seemed a preemptive move, announced earlier in the day he would retire at the end of the season and said in a statement the board should “not spend a single minute discussing my status. They have more important matters to address.”
Paterno expressed remorse for the victims.
“This is a tragedy,” he said. “It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”
Only hours later, however, Paterno’s legendary career was over.
Surma said longtime assistant Tom Bradley would take over as interim coach for the rest of the season. Penn State (8-1) plays host to Nebraska on Saturday and closes the regular season at Ohio State and Wisconsin.
“These decisions were made after careful deliberations and in the best interests of the university as a whole,” Surma said in a news conference.
Penn State students protested in the streets of State College.
Paterno released a statement saying, “Right now, I’m not the football coach, and that’s something I have to get used to.”
Paterno, major college’s all-time victories leader with 409, has been criticized for not doing enough after a 2002 incident in which Sandusky allegedly molested a boy in the shower of the team’s football complex.
Graduate assistant Mike McQueary, a former Penn State quarterback, reportedly witnessed the event and told Paterno, who informed Athletic Director Tim Curley. But Sandusky was never charged.
Paterno met his legal obligation to report the incident to his superior but many, including the state’s police commissioner, felt the coach fell short of his “moral responsibility” to alert authorities.
Curley and Vice President Gary Schultz have been charged with perjury.
Earlier Wednesday, Paterno wept when he broke the news to his team that he planned to retire.
“All the clips you’ve ever seen of him, you never saw him break down and cry,” quarterback Paul Jones told the Associated Press. “And he was crying the whole time today.”
Paterno, in his 62nd year at the school, finishes with a record of 409-136-3.
A Brown University graduate, Paterno was 23 when he joined Rip Engle’s staff at Penn State in 1950 before taking over in 1966 and embarking on a storied run.
Paterno teams posted five undefeated seasons and claimed national championships in 1982 and 1986. He leaves as the all-time leader in bowl victories with a record of 24-12-1. Paterno, in 2007, was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
His 46 years as a head coach at one school stands as the major-college record. Many wondered whether Paterno would ever retire.
The school has noted there have been 888 head coaching changes in major college football while Paterno was head coach.
Only weeks ago, he joked about coaching another 10 years. He has survived rocky seasons and numerous sideline and practice injuries but could overcome one of the most explosive sports scandals in history.
Sandusky played for Penn State in the 1960s and was an assistant coach from 1969 until 1999, when he retired to work exclusively for “The Second Mile” foundation for trouble youth.
It became obvious after Sandusky’s arrest that Paterno’s coaching future was in jeopardy.
“I am absolutely devastated by the developments in this case,” Paterno said Wednesday in his earlier statement. “I grieve for the children and their families, and I pray for their comfort and relief. 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.”
Former players feared Paterno’s career might end badly as he coached into his 80s, but no one imagined these sordid circumstances.
Matt Millen, a former Penn State linebacker, broke down on ESPN’s set Tuesday as he tried to grasp what was happening.
Former Penn State running back Mike Guman, who played for the Los Angeles Rams, described the emotions as “like there’s a death in the family.”
Todd Blackledge, a former Nittany Lions quarterback who is an ESPN college football analyst, said it was “appropriate” that Paterno will no longer be the coach.
“It’s sad and kind of bewildering something like this could take place,” Blackledge said in an ESPN interview.
Blackledge believes Paterno is remorseful for what happened.
Blackledge said he still loved Paterno and considered him a mentor.
“But I also know all humans are frail,” he said. “All humans are weak in moments. And you can’t have your trust totally in other human beings, because they’ll let you down.”
Blackledge added: “It’s not just privilege that comes with authority, it’s also accountability and responsibility. … Someone needed to go to the police.”