Penn State: A look back on the firing of Joe Paterno, the day it all started to unravel

STATE COLLEGE, Pa - While covering elections on Tuesday, November 8, 2011 I had one eye on the Ohio results and the other on State College, PA. With events surrounding the growing sex abuse scandal changing hourly I had a feeling that if we were going to go to Penn State we better go tomorrow and so we made arrangements to leave in the morning.

On the ride across Interstate 80 though we got word that legendary head coach Joe Paterno just announced his retirement in a statement that read in part:

"I am absolutely devastated by the developments in this case. I grieve for the children and their families, and I pray for their comfort and relief.

I have come to work every day for the last 61 years with one clear goal in mind: To serve the best interests of this university and the young men who have been entrusted to my care. I have the same goal today.

That's why I have decided to announce my retirement effective at the end of this season. At this moment the Board of Trustees should not spend a single minute discussing my status. They have far more important matters to address. I want to make this as easy for them as I possibly can.

This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more."

Instead of just covering the escalating scandal, we now had a bigger story the retirement of the winningest coach in NCAA Division I history.

Our first stop in State College was the home Joe Paterno's occupied since becoming head coach in 1966, a modest 60′s style Brady Bunch type ranch that sits at the end of a road next to a park.

We arrived and took our spot among the 30 or so cameras that lined the sidewalk across the street.
We hoped to talk with Paterno as he left for the team's afternoon practice but on this day he didn't go.
 
After waiting a while we talked to some of the onlookers who gathered and then headed off to "Paternoville," the student tent city outside Beaver Stadium where students were camped out for what had turned into the hottest ticket in the country, Joe Paterno's last game at Beaver Stadium that coming Saturday against Nebraska.
 
After getting reaction we prepared for our 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. live shots, the latter below:
 

Between live shots we debated whether to spend the night in State College or drive four hours back to Cleveland but ABC was reporting that University President Graham Spanier could be out tonight so we decided to stay.

We went back to Paterno's house where just before 7 p.m. a number of state police cars arrived in quick order and set up around the house. We thought this was odd because throughout the day it had only been local police keeping watch over the street, so we knew something wasn't right.

We shot stories for the 11 p.m. and the morning news programs and were in the process of editing when we got word there would be a 10 p.m. news conference at the Penn Stater Conference Center.

I called my executive producer and said we're going because it likely means Spanier is out. My story was already fed back so I said you can either use the updated information going into my package or we could dump the package and do a live shot on what happens. He decided as long as we're there let's just go live.

We got to the Penn Stater at 9:58 p.m. and rushed upstairs to the room where the news conference was going to be but everyone was still waiting out in the hall. As I looked around there was Armen Keteyian from CBS, Dan Harris from ABC, all the big guns waiting to get in. That's when someone I knew said to me, I hear JoePa's out.

At that point the doors opened up and we all ran into the room, someone even shouting at some point to relax, don't push. The Board of Trustees was already seated with the chair and vice chair at a table ready to address the media. I put our microphone on the table but there were literally so many of them I worried if it would be able to pick up the speaker.

Vice Chair John Surma did the speaking and wasted no time in saying that president Spanier was out. But then came his next words that Joe Paterno was joining him. As you watched the announcement on TV you know the audible gasp you heard but in the room it was so much louder.

I waited as long as I could to pull my microphone off the table and literally run to the our live truck, where I plugged in and went live at the top of our 11 p.m. newscast.

Within minutes of the announcement, the news had reached virtually everyone in State College through Twitter and F acebook and soon into the streets the students poured.

When we arrived just after our 11 p.m. live shot Beaver Avenue was packed solid with students who within seconds of our arrival started running to get away from local and state police in riot gear with

tear gas.

With order restored, the crowd started chanting "we are Penn State" and "JoePa-terno" but when the chant turned to "Old Main" the massive crowd was on the move to College Avenue ahead of police.

There they shattered car windows, knocked over street signs and tipped over a live truck belonging to WTAJ of Altoona. Gasoline from the truck soon pouring into the street. At one point a flare thrown dangerously close to the pool.

In a moment though the thick smell of the fuel was replaced by the burning sensation of pepper spray as videographer Gary Abrahamson and myself were hit several times by the police spray looking to disperse the crowd.

"They should have expected this," said one student. Another agreed. "It was expected and I thought that this would have influenced the Board of Trustees decision," said Dave Walkovic.

Pepper spray was one thing but when items being thrown into the crowd went from toilet paper to bricks we made the decision to go.

"We wish they weren't responding to this with violence and destructing public property," said student Audrey Montemayor, "but we definitely wish they didn't fire Joe Paterno," she added.

Student Kevin Gallagher said the reaction was over the top. "Personally I don't think that this is what Joe Paterno would have wanted."

In a statement Paterno said, "I am disappointed with the Board of Trustees' decision but I have to accept it."

He added "I appreciate the outpouring of support but want to emphasize that everyone should remain calm and please respect the university, it's property and all that we value."

This is our live shot a few hours later at 5 a.m.

Print this article Back to Top

Comments