Angry over the firing of 84-year-old football coach Joe Paterno, thousands of Penn State students poured into the streets of downtown State College, Pa. Late Wednesday night to vent their displeasure with the decision of the Board of Trustees. Although Paterno announced his resignation in the morning, he planned to finish the season, but he was denied that opportunity and the chance for a farewell appearance in the home finale against Nebraska Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
Media estimates put the crowd of cheering, chanting, singing protesters in the vicinity of 5,000. A TV van belonging to the local CBS affiliate was tipped over and the windows kicked in; students shook the antique-style lampposts lining the streets of the quaint college town and bent them, and when dozens of police in riot gear moved in to make a few arrests and spray the crowd with mace to force it to disperse, the mass of Paterno supporters flowed from Beaver Avenue to College Avenue, the two parallel downtown arteries.
The Board of Trustees announced its decision close to 10:30 p.m., and the demonstration didn't begin to lose steam until about 1 a.m. when police began using herding techniques and drove a bulldozer down the streets to force the crowd to scatter. Trustees vice-chairman John Surma called the change "necessary" in the aftermath of a child sex-abuse scandal involving Paterno's longtime former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.
In addition to replacing Paterno, who was head coach for 46 years, with interim coach Tom Bradley, the trustees also fired school president Graham Spanier and installed provost Rod Erickson as interim president. Previously, athletic director Tim Curley and vice-president Gary Schultz were indicted for providing testimony that a grand jury report described as "not credible" with regard to their knowledge of a 2002 incident in which assistant football coach Mike McQueary witnessed Sandusky allegedly sodomizing a 10-year-old boy.
McQueary testified that he told Paterno, who said he informed Curley. But no one informed Pennsylvania legal authorities or Public Welfare and Children and Youth Services, thus sparing Sandusky from being subjected to criminal prosecution until his arrest on Saturday. The serious allegations contained in the grand jury report convinced Penn State's trustees it's time to clean house in favor of new leadership.
"These decisions are never easy," Surma said. "This was difficult, but it was necessary for the longterm interests of the university."
Down on College Avenue, students criticized the trustees, and one held a sign saying, "Joe is in our interest." Less than three miles away a smaller group of about 75 students gathered peacefully in front of Paterno's house. He came out to speak briefly twice, the second time accompanied by wife, Sue. He simply marveled at how late the students were up and then told them to get some sleep and "study."
It was nearly midnight before Paterno released an official statement through his public relations company. "I am disappointed with the Board of Trustees' decision, but I have to accept it," Paterno said. "A tragedy occurred, and we all have to have patience to let the legal process proceed. I appreciate the outpouring of support but want to emphasize that everyone should remain calm and please respect the univeristy, its property and all that we value.
"I have been incredibly blessed to spend my entire career working with people I love. I am grateful beyond words to all the coaches players and staff who have been a part of this program. And to all of our fans and supporters, my family and I will be forever in your debt."
No doubt, Paterno's spirits were buoyed by the outcry from all his public defenders. However, it's uncertain if the same can be said about the still-unidentified 10-year-old boy, who could have used even one defender to protect him from Sandusky's alleged attack.