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Joe Paterno’s legacy at risk amid Penn State scandal

Penn State coach Joe Paterno, right, with then-defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky in 1999.

Paul Vathis/AP

Penn State coach Joe Paterno, right, with then-defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky in 1999.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — In his 46 years on the job, coach Joe Paterno has never quite faced a crisis like the one now hovering over Happy Valley like a dark cloud.

Indeed, scandal has hit State College.

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Retired Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky has been charged with sexually assaulting eight boys. Paterno’s boss, athletic director Tim Curley, and another school administrator, face charges of perjury and failing to report to state and county officials that a witness told them he saw an alleged instance of abuse in 2002.

All at a tradition-rich school which proudly boasts the slogan ‘‘Success with Honor.’’

‘‘If this is true we were all fooled, along with scores of professionals trained in such things, and we grieve for the victims and their families. They are in our prayers,’’ Paterno in a statement issued Sunday evening by his son, Scott.

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Suddenly, Paterno’s Hall of Fame credentials are a mere afterthought. Or his 409 career victories — a Division I record. Or the Nittany Lions’ 8-1 start that has propelled them to a surprising two-game lead in the Big Ten Leaders Division.

There are much more serious questions to be asked.

‘‘It’s shocking and surprising that’s it come up, and if it’s true then the strongest penalty should be taken against anyone engaged in a cover-up. I think it really is a shame because it is one of the few things that tarnishes Penn State football,’’ said Grant Brown, 18, a freshman from York, as he waited at a bus stop on campus.

Following a hastily-called meeting of school trustees Sunday night, the university accepted Curley’s request to be placed on administrative leave to devote time to his defense. Interim senior vice president Gary Schultz will step down and return to retirement for the same reason, the school said.

Lawyers for Sandusky, Curley and Schultz have said their clients are innocent of the charges. Curley and Schultz were scheduled to surrender to authorities Monday in Harrisburg.

Paterno is not implicated in the case.

‘‘Joe Paterno was a witness who cooperated and testified before the grand jury,’’ said Nils Frederiksen, a spokesman for the state attorney general’s office. ‘‘He’s not a suspect.’’

School spokesman Bill Mahon said Sunday night the resignations of Paterno and school president Graham Spanier were not discussed at the meeting.

Still with remarkable swiftness over a two-day span of the team’s bye week, Penn State’s once rock-solid program descended into turmoil. While other schools were plagued by controversy after controversy — Ohio State and Miami this year, for instance — storied Penn State seemingly just rolled right along with about as much buzz as their plain blue-and-white uniforms.

Earlier Sunday, Paterno offered more details on his involvement with the grand jury investigation.

Paterno in his statement referred to his testimony in which he testified that he was informed by an assistant coach in 2002 that he had witnessed an incident in the shower of the team locker room. Prosecutors have said Paterno had passed on the information to athletic director Tim Curley.

The lurid report detailed alleged graphic instances of abuse.

Few people — if anybody — before this weekend, ever thought Paterno would be called to testify in such a sensational case.

Paterno in his statement said specific actions alleged to have occurred in the grand jury report were not relayed to him.

‘‘It was obvious that the witness was distraught over what he saw, but he at no time related to me the very specific actions contained in the grand jury report,’’ Paterno said in the statement. ‘‘Regardless, it was clear that the witness saw something inappropriate involving Mr. Sandusky. As coach Sandusky was retired from our coaching staff at that time, I referred the matter to university administrators.’’

In a phone interview, Scott Paterno, serving as his father’s spokesman, said the first and only incident reported about Sandusky to Paterno was in 2002. Scott Paterno, a former lawyer, is a Harrisburg-based political operative.

Sandusky retired from his assistant’s job in 1999. He is charged with sexually abusing eight boys over 15 years. Overseeing the linebackers, Sandusky coached such prominent players including Jack Ham, Shane Conlan and Matt Millen.

Sandusky coached the defense in Penn State’s 1982 and 1986 national title seasons, and was at one point considered a likely successor to Paterno. The grand jury report released Saturday said one victim, identified as ‘‘Victim 4,’’ recalled a meeting with an emotional Sandusky after Paterno had told Sandusky about May 1999 that his assistant would not be the next coach at Penn State.

According to Scott Paterno, his father made the decision because he felt Sandusky was spending too much time at The Second Mile, a foundation Sandusky established to help at-risk kids, where authorities say he encountered the boys. Sandusky then made the decision to take early retirement, Scott Paterno said.

Scott Paterno said his father told Sandusky he had to dedicate himself to either the foundation or coaching. ‘‘Joe had said ‘You can’t do both, you can’t have two masters,’’’ Scott Paterno recalled.

Curley and Gary Schultz were charged Saturday with failing to report to state and county officials that a witness told them he saw Sandusky sexually abusing a naked boy in the locker room showers in 2002.

Two people familiar with the investigation confirmed the identity of the witness as then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary, now the team’s wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator. The two spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the names in the grand jury report has not been publicly released.

‘‘I understand that people are upset and angry, but let’s be fair and let the legal process unfold,’’ Paterno said in the statement. ‘‘In the meantime I would ask all Penn Staters to continue to trust in what that name represents, continue to pursue their lives every day with high ideals and not let these events shake their beliefs nor who they are.’’

At the time of the 2002 incident, Paterno was 75. Scott Paterno said the witness may have had a tough time detailing what he saw to the elder Paterno.

The head coach had ‘‘every indication’’ that the issue was going to be handled, or had been handled, Scott Paterno added.

‘‘I can’t speak to whether he felt he had a moral obligation ... but from the standpoint of what he was able to do, that was the most he could do,’’ Scott Paterno said. ‘‘It never crossed his mind ... that someone was trying to cover something up.’’

Paterno on Oct. 29 won his 409th victory to take the Division I record. The Nittany Lions meet Nebraska on Saturday in the home finale. In what looked like a ho-hum season at Penn State, the Nittany Lions have been clearly viewed as a surprise. And the fact that the team has a chance to win the Big Ten title this late in the season speaks to the job Paterno and his staff have done.

It hardly seems to matter much now. And as the crisis reached another day, and a new week began on campus, no one was talking about Paterno’s achievements. The conference titles. The national titles. The coaching milestones. The legions of players he sent to the NFL.

None of that stuff matters now. Indeed, a program viewed as pure and proud in the eyes of a nation suddenly has the country’s headlines for the wrong reason.

Stunning.

‘‘If true, the nature and amount of charges made are very shocking to me and all Penn Staters,’’ Paterno said. ‘‘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.’’

The Nittany Lions, who have won seven in a row since losing to Alabama in September, moved up four spots in the latest AP Top 25 poll released Sunday to No. 12 — the highest-ranked team in the Big Ten.

An athletic department spokesman said Paterno would not be available to talk to reporters until his regularly scheduled Tuesday media availabilities, and referred all comment to the university’s media relations department. There were busy signals Sunday to several calls to Paterno’s home.

Miami coach Al Golden, a former Penn State tight end, returned to his alma mater in 2000 as a linebacker coach and recruiting coordinator. Golden was hired to fill the vacancy created when Sandusky retired in 1999.

‘‘Shocked and disheartened,’’ Golden said. ‘‘But other than that, I really don’t know much about it or what’s going on. But the news that I did learn, I was shocked and disheartened, like so many others, I’m sure.’’

Golden has remained close with several people at the school and still speaks with the highest regard for Joe Paterno.

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