Commentary

Surreal scene after Joe Paterno's firing

Originally Published: November 9, 2011
By Brian Bennett and Wayne Drehs | ESPN.com

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Getting rid of a coaching icon is never easy. There's never been a coach quite like Joe Paterno. And there may never have been an exit quite like his Wednesday night.

[+] EnlargePenn State flipped van
AP Photo/Matt RourkeAngry students took out their frustration with the media by flipping a TV station's truck.

The Penn State legend's end came not on the field but with a phone call from Penn State board of trustees vice chairman John Surma. Then Surma announced Paterno's dismissal around 10:15 p.m. ET in a bizarrely confrontational news conference at the Penn Stater Hotel. Several students and fans found their way into the hotel ballroom where the news conference was hastily assembled, and some of them -- as well as a few journalists -- shouted accusations posed as questions at Surma as he sat in front of about two dozen stone-faced trustees.

A man near the front of the room repeatedly yelled, "The campus is going to burn!" while Surma attempted to give answers. The school was not in fact torched, at least not as of about 1 a.m. ET Thursday, but students took to the streets of downtown State College to protest the decision.

"There's much more anger here," freshman Steven Garner said. "[Monday] night was more like a rally by a community. Things are being broken tonight."

Students turned over a TV station's satellite truck on College Avenue and also tore down a light post and some street signs before police in riot gear used mace to disperse the crowd. Students also flooded Beaver Avenue and the lawn in front of Old Main, the school's administration building. Some set off fireworks on Beaver, while chants of "F--- the trustees!" could be heard.

The students who took to the streets here have overwhelmingly backed the 84-year-old Paterno in the sex-abuse scandal involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. Ironically, many of those students would have been about the same age as Sandusky's alleged victim was in 2002. But their love for Paterno is what got them running out of their dorm rooms after the Wednesday night news conference.

[+] EnlargePenn St. Rally
AP Photo/Matt RourkeThousands of students swarmed the streets of State College to voice their displeasure in how the situation was handled.

"People on the outside probably think we're just a bunch of crazy kids acting stupid," junior Andrew Ezzart said. "But for us, it's so much more than that. We definitely don't like the way they handled the situation. Everybody thinks they made Joe a scapegoat and this was all pinned on him."

At the Joe Paterno statue outside Beaver Stadium, some students sobbed, some prayed and others just stared off in silence. For all the chaos taking place a few blocks away, the scene there was of quiet introspection. A few university police officers looked on, but their presence seemed unnecessary.

Alex Pinkett, a freshman theater major from Houston, was in his dorm room working on a paper for a communications class when he heard screaming and yelling in the hallway. "Someone yelled the word 'fired,'" he said. "And I knew." Rather than join the crowd downtown, he went to the Paterno statue to give it a hug.

"I was going to say something to it, but I didn't want to be too cheesy," Pinkett said. "I was going to say, 'Joe, I've only begun to know you but I really appreciate you. I have a tremendous amount of respect for you and I'm very sad to see you go this way.'"

A few steps away at Paternoville, where students have camped out since 2005 for front-row tickets to that weekend's game, the mood was equally somber. Students used their cell phones and laptops to search for updates about what was happening downtown. Most had little to say about Paterno's ouster, refusing to comment. Others struggled to comprehend what had happened less than an hour earlier.

"Honestly, I'm not sure how to feel," said graduate student Christopher Grassi, the graduate advisor for Paternoville. "I think my brain is just saying, 'I can't comprehend this right now.' … I don't have an emotion positive or negative. It's just a matter of nothingness."

[+] EnlargeJoe Paterno
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarJoe Paterno, with wife Sue, thanked supporters outside their home Wednesday night.

Grassi, a lifelong Penn State fan who grew up in Nazareth, Pa., and was brought home from the hospital as a newborn wearing Nittany Lions gear, said he felt disappointed all week in what he called the university's "ineptitude" in handling the crisis. He added that he was unsure what Paternoville would look like after this week's game against Nebraska, the last home game of the 2011 season.

Other students went to Paterno's house just off campus, and Paterno stepped outside a couple of times to talk to the group. Well after midnight, a smattering of students remained, silently sitting on the curb in front of Paterno's house in the darkness.

Not everyone displayed support for the ousted coach. Earlier in the night at Old Main, a small group of about 20 protestors held signs that read, "Paterno's not a victim" and "Kids before football," hoping to draw the focus back to the children who were allegedly sexually abused by Sandusky.

"We feel like with the attention for the actual victims has gotten lost," said demonstrator Jamie Shinn, a graduate student. "We feel like there was way more attention paid to Joe Paterno and the football team than there was [to] a huge amount of abuse going on at this school for decades."

There was little fanfare surrounding the end of Penn State's practice Wednesday, which turned out to be Paterno's final act in a 46-year head coaching career. Paterno watched practice from a golf cart and walked into the Lasch Football Building when it was over, the familiar sound of shoulder pads crunching into a tackling sled from a nearby drill serving as his exit music. It was a strikingly normal scene on a day that was unlike any other.

Brian Bennett covers the Big Ten for ESPN.com.

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn.com.

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