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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Joe Paterno, the legendary Penn State football coach with the jet-black hair, rolled up pants, and formerly squeaky-clean image, said early Wednesday he would retire at the end of the season amid a child sex abuse scandal that has rocked this community and the college football world.
Hours later, Penn State trustees announced the coach and the university President Graham Spanier had been fired, effective immediately.
Paterno, a Hall of Famer and the winningest coach in Division I history, had said earlier in the day in a statement that 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," Paterno's statement said in part.
"My goals now are to keep my commitments to my players and staff and finish the season with dignity and determination. And then I will spend the rest of my life doing everything I can to help this university."
Paterno, who will be 85 next month, 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 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 Sandusky. It said two Penn State officials, Tim Curley, the athletic director, 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 Paterno and by a graduate assistant who witnessed it. Curley and Schultz were charged with perjury and failure to report. Both deny the charges.
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.
Paterno's statement issued Wednesday before his firing indicated he 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, 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 then to step down at the end of the season.
Wide receiver Derek Moye described it as a "very emotional" meeting. The team stood and applauded Paterno as he walked out.
"You almost got this feeling like this wasn't real," said quarterback Paul Jones. "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."
Paterno repeatedly stressed one point, telling the Nittany Lions (8-1, 5-0 Big Ten) to go out and "beat Nebraska" Saturday at Beaver Stadium in what would have been his final home game.
Many former players reacted with a mixture of sadness and praise for Paterno, who attended his team's practice Wednesday afternoon.
"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 Paterno. "He helped mold who I am, both on and off the field."
Former Penn State All-American linebacker and current radio analyst Jack Ham, another Hall of Famer who played for the Steelers, said it's hard to believe Paterno is stepping down.
"For Joe Paterno to leave like this is hard to watch," 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."
Paterno, born Dec. 21, 1926, in Brooklyn, N.Y., 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, he has 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).
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 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 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.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Ron Musselman is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.
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