Board explains firing of Joe Paterno

Updated: March 12, 2012, 8:47 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State trustees, faced with continued alumni and student criticism for firing football coach Joe Paterno, on Monday released a statement intended to underscore their rationale for his ouster: "failure of leadership" for his actions following a reported sex assault involving former assistant Jerry Sandusky.

The board found that while Paterno fulfilled a legal obligation to tell his superiors that an employee claimed Sandusky abused a young boy in a shower, it said Paterno should have done more.

"We determined that his decision to do his minimum legal duty and not to do more to follow up constituted a failure of leadership by Coach Paterno," the trustees wrote.

[+] EnlargeJoe Paterno
Rob Christy/US PresswirePenn State's board of trustees said Joe Paterno should have done more after learning of allegations against Jerry Sandusky.

In a statement issued by its attorney, the Paterno family said it is "surprised and saddened" that the trustees offered another explanation of their reasons for firing the Hall of Fame coach, calling it "yet another attempt ... to deflect criticism of their leadership by trying to focus the blame on Joe Paterno."

"Two months ago, as Joe Paterno was dying, the Board conducted a series of media interviews condemning him for 'moral' failures. Now they are trying a different tack and accusing him of 'leadership' failures," the family said in the statement, issued by its attorney, J. Sedwick Sollers.

"The question we would ask is simply this: When will the Board step up and acknowledge that the ultimate responsibility for this crisis is theirs? Everyone who cares about Penn State is longing for strong, courageous, honest leadership. Today's statement is anything but that."

The trustees report comes after months of criticism from Penn State alumni over Paterno's firing in November. The Hall of Fame coach died in January after a brief bout with lung cancer.

In their statement, the trustees said they had been asked by the Penn State community to "state clearly" the reasons for Paterno's dismissal and the removal of the university president.

The board had previously offered its rationale for removing Paterno and university president Graham Spanier. But trustee Keith Eckel said Monday the board decided to issue another statement now because alumni had continued to ask questions.

"Many people have indicated that they did not understand, and this is our last attempt to try to make it as clear as possible," Eckel told The Associated Press. "And people are welcome to agree or disagree with us."

In its statement, the Paterno family disagreed.

"The Paterno family is surprised and saddened that the Board of Trustees believes it is necessary and appropriate to explain -- for the fourth or fifth time -- why they fired Joe Paterno so suddenly and unjustifiably on Nov. 9, 2011," the statement said.

"This is not fair to Joe's legacy; it is not consistent with the facts; and it does not serve the best interests of the University," the statement said, adding that it "reaffirms that they [the trustees] did not conduct a thorough investigation of their own and engaged in a rush to judgment. "

Sandusky is accused of sexually abusing 10 boys over a 15-year span. He has denied the allegations.

Then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary's claim that he saw Sandusky sexually abusing a young boy inside a football building on the university campus is one of 10 such allegations brought by the state attorney general's office.

The first round of charges against Sandusky was filed Nov. 5, four days before Paterno was fired and Spanier was forced to resign.

The board also apologized for the decision to fire Paterno by phone late that night -- a decision that drew the ire of many of the coach's supporters.

"We saw no better alternative," the trustees wrote. "Because Coach Paterno's home was surrounded by media representatives, photographers and others, we did not believe there was a dignified, private and secure way to send Board representatives to meet with him there."

The trustees said they planned to apologize to Paterno for the way he was being dismissed but the coach ended the call before the message could be delivered.

The board also said it decided not to wait until the next morning, saying it feared leaks would have Paterno learning his fate before an official announcement. The coach missed the team's final three regular-season games.

Bitterness over Paterno's removal has turned up in many forms, from online postings to a note placed next to Paterno's statue at the football stadium blaming the trustees for his death. A newspaper headline that read "FIRED" was crossed out and made to read, "Killed by Trustees."

The trustees said they had intended to name Paterno head coach emeritus in honor of his contributions to the university. The board said additional options are under review but no decisions will be reached until after independent counsel and former FBI director Louis Freeh issues a final report on a special investigation into the school's handling of the allegations.

The board said the removal of Spanier was also a result of a "failure of leadership" that included insufficiently informing the board of his knowledge of the 2002 allegation. Spanier also made public statements that were not authorized or contrary to the board's instructions, the trustees said.

In one statement following the charges against Sandusky, Spanier expressed his "complete confidence" in a pair of university administrators, athletic director Tim Curley and senior vice president Gary Schultz, who were charged with perjury and failure to report suspected abuse.

Spanier requested a vote of confidence from the board on Nov. 9 but was fired that night.

Curley is on administrative leave and Schultz retired after being charged. Both maintain their innocence.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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