It was--and remains--one of the most stunning and most unexpected stories in the history of college football: Midway through the 2011 season, his 61st in State College as either an assistant or head coach, Joe Paterno was fired by Penn State.
Paterno, a man who built an unmatched legacy during his half-century stint as head of the football program in Happy Valley, was removed from his job in the wake of accusations leveled against his former longtime assistant, Jerry Sandusky. Sandusky, who served as Paterno's defensive coordinator during some of Penn State's finest moments, was accused of sexually assaulting numerous boys over the course of a decade, and the accusations were made all the more explosive given that some of the alleged assaults took place either at the Penn State football facility or through Sandusky's access to the program.
By the time the 2011 season had ended, Sandusky had yet to face trial on those charges, but Paterno's once squeaky-clean legacy had apparently been tarnished forever, with some accusing the coach--who was not charged with any legal wrongdoing--with failing in a moral sense, and not doing enough to stop Sandusky's alleged misdeeds, which Paterno says he first heard of in 2002.
Here, we take a look back at how the Sandusky story unfolded, examine the chain of events that led to Paterno's ouster, place Paterno's legacy in context, and review how Penn State tried to move forward in the wake of a crushing scandal.
On Sunday, January 22, 2012, the news was confirmed: Joe Paterno succumbed to lung cancer.
(Hunter Martin/Getty Images)
Two months after being fired, the legendary coach finally spoke up--and tried to explain his side of the story. Speaking to the Washington Post's Sally Jenkins, Paterno said he turned to his supervisors for help when he was confronted by the allegations against Sandusky. And he said he hoped only the best for Penn State going forward. "What's happened to me has been great. I got five great kids," the coach said. "Seventeen great grandchildren. I've had a wonderful experience here at Penn State. I don't want to walk away from this thing bitter. I want to be helpful."
Writing to Penn State fans after it became clear that his days in Happy Valley were over, Penn State defensive coordinator and interim head coach Tom Bradley issued a statement, imploring his fellow Penn Staters to rally behind new coach Tom O'Brien. Wrote Bradley: "This is forever my home and forever my family. It is important that we come together to support our players and our university. Now is the time to demonstrate that we are—and always will be—Penn State."
It seemed to take forever. But in early January, Penn State
finally announced that they hired New Englands Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien as their new coach. "I cannot tell you how excited I am to get started, meet the team, meet the football alumni and meet all of the people that make this University so special," O'Brien said at the time. "As head coach of this special football program, it is my responsibility to ensure that this program represents the highest level of character, respect and integrity in everything we do. That includes my coaching staff, our players and everyone involved in the football program. There is tremendous pride in Penn State football and I will never, ever take that for granted."
(Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
As the Penn State coaching search dragged on, any speculation about the Nittany Lions hiring Boise State's
Chris Petersen was quashed when Petersen signed a new long-term deal with the Broncos.
Mike Munchak is a Penn State alum, and some viewed the Tennessee Titans coach as the perfect fit to help rebuild Penn State. But when offered the job, Munchak told his alma mater, "Thanks, but no thanks."
Just days after seeing their coach fired, the Penn State Nittany Lions returned to the field. They lost a hard-fought battle against the Nebraska
Cornhuskers. But they helped their university take the first cautious step toward redemption.
Paterno tried to salvage his last season--and perhaps his reputation--by issuing an apology for not doing more to stop Sandusky. He also announced his intention to retire at the end of the 2011 season. But his plan was foiled by the University, which fired him just a few hours later.
With the scandal growing, Paterno's job security was thrown into serious doubt. And all at once, the once impossible seemed downright likely: The great Joe Paterno
was at risk of being fired by the school he had serve for more than a half century.
The ugly details of the Sandusky scandal hit the national radar on Saturday, Nov. 5. The next day, still trying to come to grips with the scope of the disaster, I wrote the following in my Sunday Morning Observations column: "Penn State stands on the precipice of complete and utter disaster. The university will be stained by this years, and if the allegations in the report are true, justifiably so. It only seems to make sense, then, that the men responsible for letting this situation get to this point should have to pay. This is ugly, ugly stuff—some of the ugliest we've ever seen in college athletics—and it cannot stand. We can only hope that the allegations prove false; we can only hope that Sandusky never molested anybody; we can only that officials at Penn State didn't try to cover this up. But if we find out this is true, well, action needs to be taken. That action needs to swift and it needs to be significant. If this is how the Paterno era has to end, well, so be it. This is bigger than football, bigger than one man's legacy. This is about justice. And justice must be served."