How a scandal brought down Joe Paterno
AP Sports Writers
The tipping point came when the state’s top cop said what everyone was thinking: Why didn’t Joe Paterno do more? Why didn’t anyone at Penn State?
“Somebody has to question … the moral requirements for a human being that knows of sexual things that are taking place with a child,” Pennsylvania state police commissioner Frank Noonan said.
“I think you have the moral responsibility,” he added. “Whether you’re a football coach or a university president or the guy sweeping the building. I think you have a moral responsibility to call us.”
That was Monday, as Noonan appeared alongside state attorney general Linda Kelly to discuss the grand jury investigation that several days earlier resulted in charges of serial child sex-abuse against Paterno’s longtime defensive coordinator and one-time heir apparent, Jerry Sandusky. It didn’t stop there. Athletic director Tim Curley and school vice president Gary Schultz face perjury charges, accused of covering up a 2002 incident in which a witness claimed he saw Sandusky sodomizing a boy of about 10 in a shower at the Nittany Lions’ practice center.
Thus began the darkest chapter in the 156-year history of one of America’s top public universities and its storied football program.
The surreal events that unfolded over the week changed the school, this tucked-away campus town and perhaps even college sports forever. Within 72 hours, outrage over the sordid, searing stories of abuse sparked a fierce search for someone to blame. Then Noonan questioned whether a coach and an institution were so enamored of athletic success that they could not – or would not – protect the most vulnerable members of the community, saying Penn State exhibited “a culture that did nothing to stop it or prevent it from happening to others.”
That was when it became clear that Paterno, a month shy of 85 and easily the largest figure on the landscape, was going to share the blame.
His forced exit late Wednesday came at the tail end of a lousy 18 months for fans of the college game. Over that span, powerhouses like Southern California, Auburn, Ohio State and Miami have been rocked by allegations that players took cash, tattoos, free travel and entree to strip clubs and yacht parties from glad-handing boosters and rogue agents while the adults in charge averted their gaze of simply looked the other way.
All of those scandals – combined – pale in comparison to the picture that emerges in the most graphic language imaginable over the 23 pages of the indictment; namely, that Sandusky molested eight young boys over a 15-year period between 1994 and 2009, continuing to do so even after an incident in 1998 brought him to attention of law-enforcement authorities. The pain those episodes caused would bubble back up to the surface two years later distilled over the course of a single week.
This is how it unfolded:
Friday, Nov. 4
Late in the afternoon, the grand jury indictment outlining the allegations against Sandusky is posted on the Pennsylvania court system’s online docket. It had been filed under seal and was quickly deleted.
Saturday, Nov. 5
Sandusky is arrested by state police, arraigned on 40 criminal counts, then released on $100,000 bail. Several young men testified before the grand jury that they were in their early teens when the abuse occurred; there is evidence even younger children may have been victimized. Sandusky’s attorney, Joe Amendola, says his client has been aware of the accusations for about three years and maintains he is innocent.
“He’s shaky, as you can expect,” Amendola tells a local TV station following the arraignment. “Being 67 years old, never having faced criminal charges in his life, and having the distinguished career that he’s had, these are very serious allegations.”
Kelly, the attorney general, sums up just how serious in a statement: “This is a case about a sexual predator who used his position within the university and community to repeatedly prey on young boys.”
The indictment paints a picture of a predator hiding in plain sight, bringing youngsters to practices and even bowl games while still on Paterno’s staff, and for nearly a decade afterward. Sandusky retired in 1999, soon after learning he wouldn’t succeed Paterno, ostensibly to devote more time to his family and The Second Mile, a charitable foundation he established two decades earlier to work with at-risk youngsters. In hindsight it was a curious career move, since Sandusky was 55 at the time and boasted the kind of resume that marked him as a prime candidate for a head-coaching job at most big-time programs.
Instead, he negotiated a retirement package that afforded him an office in the Nittany Lions’ football building and the run of Penn State’s athletic facilities, including some at satellite campuses to stage summer football camps. As late as last week, Sandusky was spotted working out in the team’s weight room.
Sunday, Nov. 6
Paterno addresses the allegations against Sandusky for the first time, saying he’s shocked and “deeply saddened.”
“If this is true,” Paterno says in a statement released by his son, Scott, “we were all fooled … we grieve for the victims and their families. They are in our prayers.”
The dean of his profession also defends his failure to go to police after Mike McQueary, then a 28-year graduate assistant and now Penn State’s receivers coach, told him of the March 2002 incident in which Sandusky assaulted the boy in the showers. McQueary, Paterno says, told him that Sandusky had behaved inappropriately, but not to the extent of the detailed testimony McQueary gave to the grand jury. As required by law, Paterno reported the incident to Curley, his superior at Penn State, who in turn notified Schultz, then also head of the campus police.
“While I did what I was supposed to with the one charge brought to my attention, like anyone else involved I can’t help but be deeply saddened these matters are alleged to have occurred,” Paterno says.
A statement released earlier by university president Graham Spanier backs the two administrators. After an emergency meeting of the board of trustees that night, Curley asks to be put on administrative leave and Schultz goes back into retirement. Board chairman Steve Garban, himself a former Penn State senior administrator, says he will appoint a task force to conduct an independent review of the university’s policies and procedures related to the protection of children.
Monday, Nov. 7
At the news conference with Noonan, Kelly says Paterno is not the target of a criminal investigation but refuses to say the same about Spanier. She urges other potential victims to come forward.
Curley and Schultz surrender that afternoon on charges of perjury and failure to report the possible abuse of a child. Each is released on $75,000 bail after appearing in a Harrisburg courtroom.
The board has all but pushed aside Spanier and is running the school. It becomes increasingly clear to some that Paterno will be gone by the end of the week.
Tuesday, Nov. 8
Paterno’s regularly scheduled news conference is abruptly canceled by the university, and a person with knowledge of the deliberations says his support among board members is eroding as criticism grows over his failure to call police or follow up after learning about the alleged March 2002 assault.
Several hundred students stage a raucous rally in front of Paterno’s house. He addresses the crowd twice, his first comments made in public since the indictments were announced. He thanks the crowd its support and asks for prayers for the victims. He refuses to address his future, but says, “It’s hard for me to say how much this means. I’ve lived for this place. I’ve lived for people like you guys and girls.”
As he returns to his house, Paterno stops and pumps his fists above his head, yelling, “We are …”
“… Penn State!” the crowd replies.
Late that night, the board announces it will appoint a special committee to investigate Penn State’s failure to stop Sandusky’s alleged assaults. Details would be forthcoming at a meeting Friday, scheduled before the scandal erupted, with Gov. Tom Corbett in attendance.
While he was state attorney general in 2009, Corbett launched an investigation into Sandusky’s activities and whether university officials might have covered them up, convening the grand jury. But once he ran for governor, and even after being elected, Corbett could not reveal the investigation was in progress. Aides have since described him as angry the university officials under scrutiny did little to address the problem at the heart of it.
Wednesday, Nov. 9
Early in the morning, The Associated Press reports that Paterno has decided to resign at the end of the season. In a statement soon afterward, he offers his regrets and acknowledges some responsibility for the scandal. “It is one of the great sorrows of my life,” it said. “With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”
But the statement is also crafted to pre-empt the board from making the decision on his immediate future for him: “At this moment the board of trustees should not spend a single minute discussing my status. They have far more important matters to address.”
At a hastily called meeting attended by two dozen trustees from around the region, the board is expected to render a decision on whether to keep Spanier. But by 10 p.m., it appears Paterno’s job will also be addressed. Several members will say later that the group was far from a consensus on Paterno’s future as they traveled to the gathering. But soon after the news conference begins, the vote is announced as unanimous.
Only a handful of the trustees in attendance at the off-campus hotel and conference center know that, shortly before Garban and vice chair John Surma take their seats in front of a microphone, an envelope has been delivered to Paterno’s house. Inside is a phone number and instructions to call.
“You are relieved of your duties,” Paterno is told.
Spanier, one of the longest-serving presidents in the country, received similar instructions. He is also relieved of his duties.
The trustees view the chaos of the past few days as an object lesson about what happens when a school, even one as committed to integrity as Penn State, falls under the spell of its sports teams. In a bid to reassert control, Surma, the no-nonsense CEO of U.S. Steel, leans into the microphone and speaks forcefully.
“The university,” he says, “is much larger than its athletic teams.”
Penn State students had gathered at the Old Main administration building the previous few nights to call for Spanier’s ouster. But when Surma follows the announcement of Spanier’s departure by saying, “In addition, Joe Paterno is no longer head coach, effective immediately,” students pour into the streets toward the columns of the Old Main administration building and into Beaver Canyon, a street located between rows of tall apartment buildings.
They throw rocks and bottles, overturn a TV news van and kick out the windows, and chant “We Want Joe!” The police respond with pepper spray. Despite the angry display by students, there are few arrests or injuries.
Thursday, Nov. 10
Defensive backs coach Tom Bradley, offered Paterno’s job on an interim basis in a phone call late the previous evening, provides one of the few light spots. He is asked how much preparation he’s been able to squeeze in between the call and his morning news conference, and whether he had the chance to catch some sleep.
“Why?” Bradley said, warily scanning his audience. “Do I look that bad?”
Bradley played for Paterno and had been on the staff for 20 years before taking over Sandusky’s role as defensive coordinator in 1999. He deflects every question about their friendship, as well as what he might have known about the allegations contained in the indictment, citing the ongoing investigation. The closest he comes to discussing the scandal is to say, “We all have a responsibility to take care of our children. All of us.”
But Bradley has no such qualms discussing his relationship with the man he is succeeding ahead of the regular-season’s final game Saturday against Nebraska. “Coach Paterno,” he says, “has meant more to me than anybody except my father.”
The scandal makes it into the White House daily briefing, and press secretary Jay Carney was asked for President Obama’s reaction to the dismissal of Paterno. “We’re not going to get into the decisions made by the university,” he said.
Friday, Nov. 11
Facing a warning the university’s bond rating could be downgraded, the trustees hold their first public meeting since firing Paterno and Spanier. The board pledges it will search for the truth and forms an investigative committee headed by trustee and Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier. The committee will have the power to hire independent lawyers, and vows to release its findings in their entirety.
“We are resilient; we are a university that will rebuild the trust and confidence that so many people have had in us for so many years,” says Rod Erickson, the former provost and newly appointed president.
Erickson also announces that McQueary will not be in the stadium for Saturday’s game and has been placed on administrative leave. The Patriot-News of Harrisburg reports that the assistant coach, who received threats, told players by phone that he was in a secluded location outside State College.
Erickson is asked: “Is Joe Paterno going to be at the game?”
“I don’t know,” he replies. “That’s Joe Paterno’s decision.”
“Is he welcome?”
“Clearly he’s welcome to come,” Erickson says curtly, “as any other member of the public would be.”
Paterno, in seclusion since the night he was fired, hires Wick Sollers, a high-profile criminal attorney. Scott Paterno says his father wants “the truth to be uncovered and he will work with his lawyers to that end.”
“My father is experiencing a range of powerful emotions. He is absolutely distraught over what happened to the children and their families. He also wants very much to speak publicly and answer questions,” Scott Paterno says. “At this stage, however, he has no choice but to be patient and defer to the legal process.”
Thousands of students and supporters gather on the front lawn of the main administration building for a candlelight vigil – a largely solemn gathering – in support of the victims in the scandal. There are eight, identified in the grand jury report only by number. In some cases their identities are not even known; ages, as stated in the report, range from 7 or 8 to 12 or 13 to simply “young.”
State officials make repeated calls for others to come forward. One man, now an adult, contacts state police after seeing media accounts of Sandusky’s arrest.
President Obama says the scandal should lead to “soul-searching” by all Americans, not just Penn State.
“People care about sports, it’s important to us, but our No. 1 priority has to be protecting our kids,” he says. “And every institution has to examine how they operate, and every individual has to take responsibility for making sure that our kids are protected.”
Saturday, Nov. 12
Nebraska 17, Penn State 14.
The look was different.
The feel was different.
Security was tight.
An assistant coach was missing.
The old man with the thick glasses, black shoes and rolled-up khaki pants was gone.
Associated Press Writers Genaro C. Armas and Marc Levy contributed to this report.