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Penn State gets things right

Watch Penn State Board of Trustees Vice Chair John Surma announce the firings.
Watch Penn State Board of Trustees Vice Chair John Surma announce the firings.
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Bill Reiter

Bill Reiter reported on LeBron James' first season in Miami and has covered the NBA Finals, Super Bowl, Olympics and NCAA tournament for FOXSports.com. He also co-hosts Hawkins and Reiter on FOX Sports Radio (Sundays, 12-3 p.m. ET), which can be heard on the FOX Sports App, iHeartRadio, XM247 or your local station. Previously, he was an award-winning sports enterprise writer for the Kansas City Star. Follow him on Twitter.

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STATE COLLEGE, Pa.

This is what the right thing finally looked like at Penn State on Wednesday night: An intimate crowd of about 15-20 students gathering outside Joe Paterno’s home shortly after he’d been fired as the head football coach at the program he’d led for decades.

This, finally, was the emotional but necessary end to failing to put allegations of sexual abuse against children ahead of oneself, one’s team, one’s legacy.

It began shortly after a member of the Penn State Board of Trustees announced Paterno was finished, effective immediately, despite the coach’s announcement earlier in the day that he was resigning at the end of the year — and that he expected to finish out this season. When that news went over the airwaves, these few students said they put on their shoes and hit the street in a dead run, heading for home of the, suddenly, former football coach at Penn State.

The impromptu and emotional gathering outside Paterno’s home started with the sounds of students trying to come to grips with what had just happened.

“I can’t. I can’t,” freshman Alex Strohl said, lost for words. “It’s just horrible disrespect to him.”

A light flicked on, someone moved inside and then a window opened. There was Sue Paterno looking down.

“Just a minute,’' she said.

Strohl and the rest of the crowd pressed forward, moving closer and waiting under the window. Sue Paterno came back a moment later. “He’s coming to the front door.”

The crowd moved to the door, quickly going through bushes and over grass, and moments later it, too, opened. Paterno emerged, looking weary but gratified.

“Thank you, Joe!”

“Thank you, Joe!”

“Thank you!”

He told them how much they meant to him.

“Right now I’m not the coach, OK?” he said, looking each of us — myself included — in the eye. “You know what I mean? I have to get used to that, after 61 years I have to get used to that.

“OK. Thanks for coming.”

As Paterno turned and started to head back into his house, the crowd started chanting. “We love you, Joe! We love you, Joe! We love you, Joe!” He paused at the door, turned to the crowd and told them all he loved them, too.

Paterno had one last thing to say.

“Obviously,” he said, “I didn’t think it was going to happen this way. But it did. We’ll go on from here.”

He went inside, but his wife remained. Sue stood on the porch and motioned to a friend who she saw in the crowd to come forward. “Bill! Bill! Come here!” The man walked to her and put his arms around her. Sue Paterno burst into tears.

This was the hard end — the emotional scene — that the board of trustees had the gumption, courage and foresight to bring about. Was it hard? Yes, it was. Was there any joy in seeing Paterno grappling with his new life as someone other than the head coach, or his wife crying over that fact? Not an ounce of joy.

EMOTIONS RUN HIGH

Penn State erupts in chaos, confusion after Joe Paterno is fired. See the campus' reaction.

It pulled at the heartstrings, even for someone like me — someone who believes Paterno, his wide receivers coach Mike McQueary, former athletic director Tim Curley and former vice president Gary Schultz all failed via varying but horrific acts of moral cowardice in not reporting the alleged sex crimes of former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. Someone who thinks this was, easily, the right, proper and only decision any reasonable institution could make.

Sad? Yes. But the right thing nonetheless — the correct choice to remove Paterno. He had to go, despite his departure bringing about this intimate moment of grasping with the end of his era as head coach.

At a packed news conference a short time earlier, board vice chair John Surma spoke on behalf of what he described as a unanimous decision by the board to remove both Paterno and university president Graham Spanier. Surma laid out in calm logic the reasons it was time for a change.

“The university is much larger than its athletic teams,” Surma said.

Much of the reaction from the media, almost certainly local media, was scathing in its anger and questioning. It was hard to tell some of the journalists from the fans who had snuck in, including a woman crying in front of me. Then Surma explained that they had let Paterno go by phone because, he said, “We were unable to find a way to do that in person without causing further distraction.”

Surma added: “I would hope that our students, we would hope that everyone who cares about Penn State — our 95,000 students, our hundreds of thousands of alumni — I would hope that everyone would agree that what we’re doing is what we believe is in the best long-term interests of the university, which is much larger than athletic programs.”

This was the end for Paterno.

This was, of course, what had to happen when the horror behind Sandusky’s alleged crimes shifted to include the indignation of allegations that a slew of athletic department employees failed to stop the abuse despite repeated warnings. Curley and Schultz have been charged with perjury and failure to report child abuse; McQueary, who claims to have seen an attack in 2002, has not been heard from this week.

Paterno himself was told of the allegations in 2002 by McQueary, according to grand jury findings, yet the police were never notified. Paterno told Curley at the time, thus covering himself legally, but the moral outrage behind not doing more led to Wednesday’s announcement.

As Surma laid out, Paterno’s career as the head coach at Penn State was over.

Paterno himself knew before he appeared on his porch a short time later.

“In all the clips I’ve seen of him, I’ve never seen him break down and cry,” quarterback Paul Jones said. “And he was crying the whole time today.”

Back at Paterno’s home, the crowd swelled to about 40-50 students. But it never reached the fever-pitched madness of Tuesday night, when more than 1,400 students showered him with adulation and support. This was a quiet exit, a small one, and when the light above his front door went out the crowed sat in utter silence, realizing: It was over. Paterno was finally finished at Penn State.

While Paterno struggled to face a world he was no longer the head coach in, students not far away on campus and the surrounding area also were struggling with the news. Riot police were deployed in State College as a crowd of thousands protested the firing violently, including flipping over a media van.

You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at foxsportsreiter@gmail.com.

Tagged: Penn State

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