STATE COLLEGE, PA - Penn State fired a legend last night, football coach Joe Paterno. The Penn State campus erupted!
Angry, chanting students ran amok last night after Penn State did the unthinkable: fired Joe Paterno.
Chanting “Joe Pa-ter-no!” and “One More Game!” students raced to the stately Old Main administration building to express their anger that the winningest coach in major-college football history was out – fallout from the child-sex scandal involving his former top assistant, Jerry Sandusky.
More than 10,000 students rioted and rallied at Old Main and on frat-house-lined Beaver Avenue. Riot cops, fire trucks and ambulances were on hand after midnight, amid reports that tear gas was being used to disperse the crowd.
Demonstrators overturned a TV news van, toppled street lights, shook stop signs and threw toilet paper. From rooftops and in the streets, they yelled “F— Sandusky!” and “We Want JoePa!”
The campus chaos began shortly after 10 p.m. with the announcement by the board of trustees that Paterno, 84, who had said earlier in the day that he would retire at the end of the season, was instead fired over the phone and denied a chance to end his career on the playing field.
The trustees also accepted a letter of resignation from longtime president Graham Spanier, who was making $800,000 a year at the end of a 16-year run in which he’d raised the academic profile of the state’s largest academic institution.
As for reports of campus unrest at Paterno’s ouster, John Surma, vice chairman of the board of trustees, said he hoped everyone would realize that the board’s action was for the best: “Because of the difficulties that engulfed our university – and they are grave – it was necessary to make a change in leadership.”
It was the shock-and-awe conclusion to a day of bombshells that made Penn State’s hometown feel less like a bucolic mountainside oasis of pigskin-flavored academia and more like a foreign capital in the throes of revolution.
Before the trustees’ announcement, impromptu clusters of students marched into town or around Old Main, carrying protest signs and calling for the ouster of the president. A well-known mural was painted over to reflect the new political reality. Students who never met before launched into spontaneous debates about deep issues of morality.
“We’re just kind of lost,” said Will Dawson, 20, a sophomore who stopped in front of Old Main late yesterday afternoon to debate another student about what school officials should have done to prevent the modern-day Greek tragedy that peaked – but didn’t end – with last night’s news about the ousters of Paterno and Spanier.
“It’s disturbing how long this has been covered up,” said the student with whom Dawson debated, geology major John Griswald, 22.
Like most students, Griswald was in shock that Sandusky allegedly had sexually abused as many as eight young boys, that top university officials were charged in a cover-up, and that Paterno was now out as well.
“It’s like the Catholic Church – it’s despicable when you see older men in power not protecting children,” he added.
Rodney Erickson, who’s been executive vice president, will replace Spanier on an interim basis while a search is conducted for a new president. Officials would not rule out former governor Tom Ridge, whose name was floated yesterday.
On the football field, defensive coordinator Tom Bradley will guide the team for the rest of the season in place of Paterno, who was denied a chance to walk off the field to end his career.
Paterno and Spanier are entitled to severance pay. Tim Curley, the athletic director under indictment in the alleged cover-up, remains on administrative leave.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education said late yesterday that it would probe the scandal because it would violate federal law for a university not to issue a prompt warning about serious crime on campus.
The headlines brought heightened anxiety on a campus of more than 44,000 students.
The mood even before the firings was one of nearly universal anger about Sandusky’s horrific alleged sex crimes and the actions of Spanier and other top officials.
But student opinion was split down the middle about Paterno, the grandfatherly icon who just last Saturday became the winningest coach in major college football. Some saw Paterno as a victim of the scandal; others saw him as an enabler.
“Rape is the issue,” said Alicia Archangel, 21, an international-politics major, who sat in front of Old Main holding a sign that read: Child abuse should never be silenced.
Other students seemed determined to throw themselves into the cause of opposing child abuse with the same abandon with which they’ve rooted week after week for the Nittany Lions on the gridiron.
McLanahan’s, a store just off the main campus, today will start selling “blue-out” T-shirts for Saturday’s game against Nebraska. Proceeds will benefit the group Prevent Child Abuse Pennsylvania.
In one of the more bizarre episodes yesterday, Michael Pilato, the artist who created a massive downtown mural called “Inspiration,” showed up and painted over the image of Sandusky, replacing him with an empty chair and a blue ribbon for the alleged victims.
In the same mode, a famed ice-cream stop, the Creamery, pulled its longtime Sandusky Blitz flavor off its menu, even as a false rumor spread among students that the Peachy Paterno variety had been yanked as well.
It was that kind of day in State College, a day of wild rumors and public debate and massive uncertainty. But mainly it was a day of sadness.
Michelle Knots, 42, a grad student who received her undergraduate degree here in 1991, wept as she tried to explain why she’d come down to Old Main with a sign bearing the aphorism: All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.
“I’m shocked that in the name of saving the prestige of a football program, young children were raped and it was covered up,” she said. “I got teary-eyed just saying that.”
Morgan Zalot and Will Bunch