STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Fired by phone.
Joe Paterno, a man who until last week could make a claim to being the greatest coaching institution in the history of college athletics, was terminated Wednesday night with a phone call. Forty-six years as head football coach at Penn State ended when he was informed by university trustees John Surma and Steve Garban that his services were no longer needed. Effective immediately.
It's the way some employers would treat a middle manager, not a legend. But in the end, maybe that's heartlessly fitting – after all, Paterno abdicated his powerful role and played the part of a mid-level employee in passing the buck up the ladder when informed in 2002 that an alleged pedophile had raped a boy in the showers of his football complex. The crucial lack of leadership in a moment of dire crisis led to the end of his leadership at Penn State.
Thus the fifth day of the Jerry Sandusky scandal in Happy Valley began with Paterno bargaining for time and ended in chaos. It ended with an embarrassing press conference that made both the trustees and the media look like clowns. It ended with Surma, the board's front man, unable or unwilling to specifically define why Joe had to go. It ended with sprawling student protests across campus and downtown.
And it ended with an ever-lengthening list of men who have lost their jobs at Penn State because the school so completely failed to protect innocent children from an alleged predator. We have already seen athletic director Tim Curley take a leave that will undoubtedly lead to a firing. We have already seen vice president Gary Schultz step down. Now president Graham Spanier – a non-responder during this bleak period – has resigned. And now we have seen the biggest name in Penn State history, Joseph Vincent Paterno, fired before he could even get a goodbye game in front of the fans who worship him, fired before he could even saddle up for a long-delayed ride into the sunset.
Paterno clearly saw the chips stacked against him this week, which was why he took a pre-emptive shot at saving this season by announcing Wednesday morning that he would retire at its end. But that announcement came from the Paterno family itself, not the university. That was a sign that the school wasn't ready to sign off on such a plan.
By 10 p.m., it was clear that the trustees wanted no part in perpetuating Paterno's career even one game longer. In a vote it said was unanimous, they moved to end an unparalleled run in unceremonious fashion. When you consider the grip Paterno had on this university for decades, it took some gumption – and a national outcry – to fire the man in such abrupt fashion.
"To allow this to continue, we think, would be damaging to the university," Surma said.
[Wetzel: Process of healing begins for Penn State]
While a good percentage of the world outside Penn State agrees with this dramatic action, it was greeted with outrage here. There were gasps in the room when the announcement was made, and students quickly mobilized in massive numbers to voice their loud (though disjointed) displeasure.
Among the chants that rang out on Beaver Avenue late Wednesday night:
"Hell, no, Joe won't go!"
"One more game!"
Later, things became more aggressive. A TV news van was overturned by protestors near the administration building. Rocks were tossed at police.
A few football players came out to see the scene, but declined comment on the sudden loss of their legendary leader. (Longtime defensive coordinator Tom Bradley has been named the interim coach.) The ardor for Paterno was obvious, but you couldn't help but wonder whether the students might be moved to one day show such united passion for those who suffered child sex abuse – the true victims here.
[Slideshow: Paterno fired during 61st season at PSU]
That is the danger in the cult-of-personality dynamic of college sports. Coaches are elevated to such mythic levels that they become larger than the programs they lead and often larger than the universities that employ them.
Perspective gets warped. Bad endings often ensue.
But the stupefying thing is that nobody – nobody – could ever have foreseen a scandalous ending for Joe Paterno. He had done so much right for so many years. He had won so many games, donated so much money to the school, graduated so many players, made so few missteps – not a single major NCAA violation in a sport rife with corruption.
And then this blew up the perfect little athletic world. Jerry Sandusky in the Garden of Eden, his alleged crimes against children undeterred by those around him. A scandal so shocking that even the most jaded mind could not have dreamed it up.
Not those allegations. And not in this place.
A friend on Twitter called this the saddest sports story of his lifetime Wednesday night. It's hard not to agree. Joe Paterno, onetime white knight of college athletics, was fired by phone. And despite the sporting tragedy of that, it pales in comparison to the human tragedies that were the catalyst for this stunning fall.