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With Paterno gone, it's all about the team

Tom Bradley, left, will take over as Penn State's interim coach following Joe Paterno's firing. Randy Litzinger/Icon SMI

When Joe Paterno announced his retirement to the team Wednesday morning, it wasn't a firm goodbye.

He would be seeing his players for practice later this week. He would address them in the locker room before Saturday's home finale against Nebraska. He would be with them 'til the end, in some bowl game -- perhaps the Granddaddy of Them All.

Paterno wasn't gone yet.

"It seemed pretty much that Joe was going to coach for the rest of the season and retire after the season," safety Drew Astorino said.

Penn State's board of trustees had other ideas. Around 10:15 p.m. ET Wednesday, the board announced Paterno had been terminated as Nittany Lions coach.

After 46 seasons and 548 games, the Joe Paterno era is over.

Longtime defensive coordinator Tom Bradley will be Penn State's acting head coach for the remainder of the season.

"Right now, I'm not the football coach, and that's something I have to get used to," Paterno told a group of students at his home, according to The Associated Press, after the trustees' announcement.

He's not the only one. His players must get used to this reality, too. It hit them hard Wednesday night.

"It's messed up they are doing this to a man who is a big reason Penn State is what it is today," senior wide receiver Derek Moye said on Twitter.

"Can't even shake my own head coach's hand wen I run out into beaver stadium for the last time...yall dk how much this man has done," senior defensive tackle Devon Still tweeted.

"Wake me up...this is a nightmare!" senior linebacker Nate Stupar tweeted.

The shock value certainly will be there in the coming days and hours. Although Paterno's direct involvement with the team had been reduced in recent years, his presence on Saturdays, even in the press box, was significant for his players. I remember a 2009 game at Michigan where Paterno, sensing his team needed a jolt, started jumping up and down in the tunnel to fire up the players before they took the field. His departure will stir emotions throughout the team, particularly with the seniors.

But Paterno's exit also makes it all about these players and this team, which it should be. It's not about Joe anymore. It's about the 2011 Penn State Nittany Lions, trying to win a Big Ten championship and reach the Rose Bowl.

As Astorino said earlier Wednesday, "The 125 guys on this team didn't have anything to do with what happened 10 years ago." He's right. Penn State's players didn't do anything wrong.

The players have the right to push forward. The seniors have the right to enjoy their final home game. For 46 years, Penn State football has been all about Joe. On Saturday, it will be all about the players. Bradley should reinforce this to the team, and I'm sure he will.

Saturday will be a tough day. There will be emotions. It will be hard to remain focused. Penn State could play inspired football against Nebraska. It also could perform like a team emotionally exhausted by the week and rattled by all the distractions. Tough to tell at this point.

The process should get easier, perhaps when Penn State hits the road next week at Ohio State. The firestorm will die down a bit. Not having Paterno could direct the focus more toward the team and its task at hand.

Joe Paterno is gone. The players aren't. This is their program now.