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Iconic Joe Paterno out in sex abuse scandal fallout

updated 4:48 PM EST, Sat November 12, 2011
  • NEW: Paterno was fired Wednesday night
  • NEW: For Penn State, the fallout "remains inestimable"
  • Prosecutors say Paterno met his obligations
  • Paterno reported an alleged 2002 incident involving Sandusky to his boss

State College, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- He's known to generations of football fans simply as JoePa, the hard-nosed Penn State football coach who peers through his trademark thick eyeglasses and sees something more in the young men he coaches -- and demands they see it, too.

But Joe Paterno's stellar reputation has been muddied over reports of his reaction to a years-ago child sex abuse case, and he has lost his job after 46 years as a head coach.

The university trustees unanimously voted to fire the iconic sports figure Wednesday night. Nittany Lions defensive coordinator Tom Bradley will serve as interim head coach. Graham Spanier, the college president, was fired as well.

National outrage has percolated over Paterno's reaction to a graduate assistant's 2002 report that he had seen former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky performing anal sex on a young boy in the shower room of the football complex.

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Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly said Monday that Paterno is not a target of the investigation, which has resulted in charges against two top university officials accused of failing to report the abuse, in addition to Sandusky. But critics have said the coach should have reported the suspected abuse to police.

Paterno, 84, said on Sunday that he'd never been told the graphic details revealed in a grand jury report about sex abuse allegations but that he nevertheless passed the allegations on to his boss. He said he had done "what I was supposed to do." In a later statement, he said "with the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more."

Sandusky, who was arrested Saturday, is accused of sexual offenses, child endangerment and "corruption of a minor" involving eight boys, most or all of whom he met through The Second Mile, the charity he founded to help troubled youth, prosecutors said.

"We don't yet know who is legally guilty," columnist Michael Rosenberg writes. "But several prominent employees at the state university are morally guilty. And one of them is Joe Paterno."

Paterno has earned a reputation not only as a football wizard -- he's won more games than any other major-school coach -- but for his focus on academics and civics.

He began his career at Penn State in 1950 as a 23-year-old assistant under head coach Rip Engle.

Sixteen years later, he took the reins of the Nittany Lions football program, beginning a head coaching career that has netted him 409 wins, five undefeated seasons, two national titles and a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame.

He also put a premium on academic achievement. Paterno contributed $3.5 million to the university in 1998, endowing faculty positions in liberal arts, architecture, landscape architecture and the university's library system, according to his biography. He also helped fund an interfaith spiritual center and a sports museum.

He also has challenged his own athletes to succeed academically. His 2009 team had an 89% graduation rate, and his teams have produced dozens of academic award and scholarship winners, according to his bio.

"Coach Paterno was absolutely instrumental in my life in showing me and teaching me that there are no cutting corners," Tom Bill, who played quarterback at Penn State in the late 1980s and early 1990s, told CNN in 2004.

Paterno became embroiled in the Sandusky saga when, in 2002, a graduate assistant came to him to report a disturbing scene he had witnessed the night before, according to a grand jury report released last week.

According to the report, the assistant told Paterno that he saw Sandusky in the shower with a boy who looked to be about 10 years old. Sandusky was having sex with the child, according to the grand jury report and prosecutors.

The distraught assistant ran from the building and called his father, who advised him to report the incident to Paterno, according to the grand jury and prosecutors.

The next day, Paterno passed the report up to his boss, Athletic Director Tim Curley, saying -- according to the grand jury report -- that the graduate assistant had told him he had seen Sandusky "fondling or doing something of a sexual nature to a young boy."

The reports never made it to police.

Curley and another university official who learned of the 2002 incident, Senior Vice President for Finance and Business Gary Schultz, have been charged with failing to report the abuse to authorities and misleading the grand jury investigating Sandusky's conduct.

In his Sunday statement, Paterno said he did his duty in referring the allegations to his superior but said the assistant never "related to me the very specific actions contained in the grand jury report."

"If this is true we were all fooled, along with scores of professionals trained in such things, and we grieve for the victims and their families," he said in the statement.

Stewart Mandel, in an column, pondered what he sees as Paterno's complex legacy.

"No question, Paterno should be held accountable for his inaction in the Sandusky saga -- as should a whole lot of other people who had a chance to stop this tragedy. It would be an injustice to the alleged victims to ever forget Paterno's failure to prevent future crimes. But it would also be a disservice to the thousands upon thousands of lives he positively impacted if that mistake erases 46 years of good from the history books.

"We will remember Paterno both as the coach who we thought served as a moral standard-bearer for 40-plus years and as the coach who bore responsibility for a reprehensible moral breakdown at the end. Those memories are not mutually exclusive. They can coexist."

As for Penn State itself, Gene Collier, a columnist with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, said the fallout from the "Sandusky bombshell remains inestimable, particularly at its far horizons."

"Years of criminal and civil litigation await the university's soon-to-be-overburdened attorneys, by just one example, and predicting what the institution will come to look like in the Post-Paterno Era strains the imagination," wrote Collier.

"Whatever its future, it's probably better than that of some still untold number of young boys who suffered soul-scorching sexual abuse that Penn State's top leadership allegedly could have prevented had it only the standard human apportionment of moral courage. You can paint over Jerry Sandusky's image on a State College mural, as an artist did Wednesday, but no artistic flourish or inspiration can begin to cover the psychological destruction he's alleged to have wrought."

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