STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Penn State football is crumbling in real time.
A horde of reporters converged upon Beaver Stadium on Tuesday morning to hear, after four disturbing days, from legendary coach Joe Paterno. Then the hugely anticipated press conference was abruptly canceled – by the school, not the coach – sending about 150 media members scurrying. Videographers chased a university spokesman as he race-walked away from the chaotic scene after announcing the cancellation. And as TV reporters did their stand-ups outside the stadium, Twitter erupted with a New York Times report that the school is working toward Paterno's ouster – not in January, but potentially this week.
With the school's leadership in a shambles and in hiding, the vacuum has been filled by chaos.
Last week, before the horrifying Jerry Sandusky news broke, Penn State's biggest football concern was sketchy quarterback play amid a surprising 8-1 season. This week, the school's athletic pride and joy is coming unhinged amid unimaginably awful circumstances.
A program that has been a rock of continuity – impervious to scandal, immune to coaching turnover, not even so much as changing the uniforms in decades – is splintering. A program that has been a pillar of integrity and virtue and perspective is in danger of buckling. As Penn State collapses, it takes no small portion of college sports' already tortured soul with it.
Welcome to the new low in college athletic history. We have crash-landed at rock bottom in Happy Valley.
[Wetzel podcast: Legal issues may not be over at Penn State]
We're accustomed to collegiate scandal cycles, and they seem to have a similar rhythm: revelations of wrongdoing, a counter-attack from defenders of the program, then a long period of silence as the NCAA process plays out. This has been completely different: explosive felony charges brought by the Pennsylvania attorney general, charges so vile that few Penn State backers could even mount a defense, and now the astonishingly rapid implosion of the power structure at the school.
The athletic director and a senior vice president are out and have been arraigned on felony charges. President Graham Spanier is clinging to his job for the moment, but seems to be a goner. And now the living icon who has built Penn State football into a sporting Shangri-La could be in his final hours on the job.
In a whirlwind four-day news cycle, an unparalleled 46-year career could end. Poof. Done. A smoking crater where an ivory tower used to be.
Perhaps because this is so jarring it shouldn't be a surprise to see it play out in remarkably messy fashion.
A place that always controlled the media and controlled its own message now appears helpless and clueless in the face of a massive and relentless media onslaught. The Penn State brass is cowering behind prepared statements, with Spanier interceding to cancel Paterno's Tuesday media appointment over the protests of the coach.
That led to the unseemly scene on Paterno's front lawn this afternoon, as minicams converged on the 84-year-old as he left his house for practice on campus nearby. Whether that was a signal of his tone-deafness to the gravity of the matter – he wants to prepare for Nebraska, really? – or a sign of a man just trying to doggedly do his job through the storm is unknown.
[Wetzel: If parting with Paterno, do it now]
Son Scott Paterno said this from the family's home: "Right now Joe is going to practice and that's all we have to say at this time. If there is more to tell you we'll let you now. … We will talk when the time is appropriate."
Scott Paterno said nobody from the school has discussed ending his father's career with the family. But the questions persist: Will he coach another practice after this one? Will he ever coach another game?
And what about the players, trying to find some semblance of normalcy and get ready for a game that once seemed very important – now a sideshow, but a game they still have to play Saturday?
"All the players can do is rally," one player told Yahoo! Sports Tuesday, "and focus on Nebraska."
Meanwhile, the Harrisburg Patriot-News has kept digging and kept reporting, reaching family members of some of Sandusky's alleged victims. A ninth alleged victim has come forward. Mothers of violated children have poured out their pain and anger to the paper.
"My son is extremely distraught, and now to see how we were betrayed, words cannot tell you. To see that Graham Spanier is putting his unconditional support behind (athletic director Tim) Curley and (senior vice president Gary) Shultz when he should be putting his support behind the victims, it just makes them victims all over again."
Said another mother of a victim to the newspaper: "I don't even have words to talk about the betrayal that I feel. [Former graduate assistant Mike McQueary] was a grown man, and he saw a boy being sodomized … He ran and called his daddy?"
[Related: Mothers of alleged Sandusky victims speak up]
There figure to be more furious quotes to come. And perhaps more victims to come forward. While Paterno's tenure may be coming to an end, this scandal will play out for a long time to come.
In the meantime, emotions are raw everywhere. ESPN analyst and former Penn State hero Matt Millen is in tears on SportsCenter. Thousands of other Penn Staters – on campus and around the world – are in anguish watching this all unfold.
It is staggering, the damage allegedly done by one man.
And by those who didn't stop him.