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Under fire from alumni, Penn State bothers to explain why it fired Joe Paterno

Matt Hinton
Dr. Saturday

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Penn State president Rodney Erickson is in Philadelphia for the second of three "town hall" style meetings with PSU alumni, and after what happened Wednesday, he should come in with a good idea of what to expect: A lot of venting.

By all accounts, the first meeting served as a collective release for months of pent-up frustration, most of it directed at the university's board of trustees for a myriad of perceived missteps in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex scandal — disorganization, poor communication, failure to counteract the negative image presented in the media, and most egregiously, abruptly firing Joe Paterno on Nov. 9 in the face of mounting criticism over his role in the university's (lack of) response to repeated allegations against Sandusky. One woman called Paterno's exit "unconscionable," and a written statement calling for the sacking of the entire board of trustees was read aloud to standing applause.

Trustees weren't at the meeting, personally, which was probably for their own good. But at least part of the message got through loud and clear, which is why on Thursday night — 63 days after the fact — we received the first official explanation of the board's decision to fire Paterno. Per a university release:

"Many alumni have asked why the Board decided to remove Coach Paterno from his position as Head Football Coach. On Wednesday, November 9, Coach Paterno announced that he would retire at the conclusion of the 2011 football season. Given the nature of the serious allegations contained in the Grand Jury Report and the extraordinary circumstances then facing the University, the Board's unanimous judgment was that Coach Paterno could not be expected to continue to effectively perform his duties and that it was in the best interests of the University to make an immediate change in his status. Therefore, the Board acted to remove Coach Paterno from his position as Head Football Coach effective as of that date.

"Coach Paterno remains employed by the University as a tenured faculty member. The details of his retirement are being worked out and will be made public when they are finalized. Generally speaking, the University intends to honor the terms of his employment contract and is treating him financially as if he had retired at the end of the 2011 football season."

That's a lot of words to say, "We basically had no choice, OK?" Which they clearly did not: Without launching into another lengthy rehash of Paterno's role in the scandal, the board found itself in a position on Nov. 9 in which its football coach and other high-profile figures on campus were (justifiably) regarded as the men who turned a blind eye to an accused child molester for the better part of a decade. The campus was a circus, everywhere Paterno showed his face was a mob scene and the next game was three days away. "Extraordinary circumstances" is putting it mildly.

Then again, for true believers who still refuse to concede even the political necessity of Paterno's exit — and there are a lot of them — a few predictable lines in a press release, two months later, probably aren't going to go very far toward piercing a collective sense of righteous indignation. At this point, that may already be up to the passing of time.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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