Joe Paterno says he 'backed away'

Updated: January 15, 2012, 6:12 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

Joe Paterno, a day before re-entering the hospital with cancer-treatment complications, made his first public statements since being fired after 46 seasons at Penn State, telling The Washington Post he did not know how to deal with the situation when he received a report that his former defensive coordinator was accused of abusing a boy in the showers.

"I didn't know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was," he told The Post in an extensive two-day interview at his home in State College, Pa. "So I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did. It didn't work out that way."

The Post account describes Paterno, who is not accused of any wrongdoing, as physically weakened from his chemotherapy treatments, speaking with a rasp. The interview, conducted Thursday and Friday, was monitored by his attorney, Wick Sollers, and a communications adviser, Dan McGinn.

Paterno's cancer diagnosis was revealed Nov. 18, nine days after he was fired by Penn State in the wake of a sexual abuse scandal that has resulted in 52 counts of child molestation against former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. Paterno had announced his retirement early on Nov. 9, but the Penn State board of trustees fired him and school president Graham Spanier about 12 hours later.

Paterno was admitted to the hospital Friday for observation due to minor complications from cancer treatments. His condition was improved Saturday morning, and he remained in the hospital, his family said.

Sandusky says he is innocent and is under house arrest after posting $250,000 bail. His next court appearance is a March 22 pretrial conference.

In addition, Penn State athletic director Tim Curley, who is on leave, and a school vice president, Gary Schultz, face trial for charges of perjury and failing to report suspected child abuse and have left the school.

Paterno said he wished he knew how allegations against Sandusky didn't come to light until this year. "I don't know the answer to that," he said. "It's hard."

Paterno gave The Post his account of how and when he was told of the abuse allegation against Sandusky -- a man with whom he had a professional, not personal, relationship.

Paterno said that until assistant coach Mike McQueary, in 2002, approached him, he had "no inkling" of a possible dark side to Sandusky, according to The Post.

[+] EnlargeJoe Paterno
John McDonnell/The Washington PostFormer Penn State coach Joe Paterno was interviewed Thursday and Friday by The Washington Post at his home in State College, Pa.

"He (McQueary) told me what he saw, and I said, what? He said it, well, looked like inappropriate, or fondling, I'm not quite sure exactly how he put it. I said you did what you had to do. It's my job now to figure out what we want to do," Paterno told The Post.

"So I sat around. It was a Saturday. Waited till Sunday because I wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing. And then I called my superiors and I said, 'Hey, we got a problem, I think. Would you guys look into it?' Cause I didn't know, you know. We never had, until that point, 58 years I think, I had never had to deal with something like that. And I didn't feel adequate."

Paterno affirmed reports that McQueary was not specific in describing what he allegedly saw, and he told The Post that even if he did, "I don't know that it would have done any good, because I never heard of, of, rape and a man. So I just did what I thought was best. I talked to people that I thought would be, if there was a problem, that would be following up on it."

Paterno also said he did not know of the 1998 abuse allegation levied by the mother of a boy who was part of Sandusky's youth foundation, the Second Mile.

Asked to respond to the Paterno interview, Sandusky lawyer Joe Amendola said in a statement to The Associated Press the former Penn State assistant was "greatly dismayed by the knee-jerk reaction" of the Penn State Board of Trustees in firing Paterno.

"In the meantime, we'll continue to keep Coach Paterno and (athletic director) Tim Curley in our thoughts and prayers for a speedy and full recovery from their illnesses and Jerry and I will continue our work in preparation for this trial."

Jay Paterno, one of Joe Paterno's three sons, told ESPN's Tom Rinaldi in an interview last week that his father was "very anxious to get out there soon and start to tell his side of the story and start to express -- get all the facts out."

Jay Paterno added: "He's fighting like crazy. But it takes some, takes some energy out of him like it does anybody else. I mean, he said to me, 'I get tired from time to time.' "

In a statement released to The Associated Press, Paterno's family said he continues to undergo a "regimen of treatments" for what they have termed a treatable form of lung cancer.

The family hoped his latest hospital stay would be brief. He had also been hospitalized last month after re-breaking his pelvis following a fall at home. That stay also allowed Paterno to continue taking his cancer treatments, which have included radiation and chemotherapy.

Paterno had previously hurt his pelvis when he got run over accidentally by a player in practice in August, forcing him to spend most of the regular season coaching from the press box.

Paterno remains employed as a tenured faculty member at Penn State, and details of his retirement were being worked out and would be made public when finalized.

The schools trustees have said they intend to honor Paterno's contract as if he had retired at the end of the 2011 football season.

The trustees' firing of Paterno has come under scrutiny from several former players, as well as some alumni critical at meetings this week with school president Rodney Erickson about the motivation to oust Paterno.

With a media storm descending on the campus, Paterno announced his resignation the morning of Nov. 9. That day, he called the scandal "one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more."

The trustees fired him about 12 hours later. Paterno recounted that he was passed a note at the door of his home by an assistant athletic director with the name of trustees vice chairman John Surma and a phone number.

According to the Post, Surma told Paterno, "In the best interests of the university, you are terminated." Paterno hung up and repeated the words to his wife, who redialed the number.

"After 61 years he deserved better," Sue Paterno said. "He deserved better."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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