Penn State trustees discuss Paterno firing

Penn State's board of trustees has heard its share of criticism for the way it dealt with the Jerry Sandusky controversy and for the firing of legendary head coach Joe Paterno. Some alumni have led a charge to relieve all the board members of their duties.

In response, 13 Penn State trustees recently met with the New York Times to share their side of the story and recount what happened in the most difficult week in school history.

The article by Pete Thamel and Mark Viera was published today and leads off with a description of how the trustees decided to fire Paterno. Trustees vice chairman John P. Surma asked the 32 trustees if anyone had an objection to the decision.

"No one in the room spoke. There was silence from the phone speakers. Paterno’s 46-year tenure as head coach of one of the country’s storied college football programs was over, and the gravity of the action began to sink in.

“'It was hard for us to want to get to the point where we were going to say that,' said Ira M. Lubert, a board member who works in private equity. 'I was laying in bed that night shaking. And I couldn’t sleep, thinking: We just terminated Joe Paterno.'"

The trustees told the Times they had three key reasons for firing Paterno:

1. His failure to do more than merely inform his superiors when alerted to a suspected sexual assault by Sandusky in football locker-room shower 2002.

2. What they saw as his questioning of the board’s authority; remember Paterno's statement when he said the board shouldn't spend any time debating his job status?

3. His inability to coach the team effectively while the ongoing controversy swirled around the program.

Some of the trustees thought Paterno should have gone to the police instead of telling athletic director Tim Curley and school vice president Gary Schultz, who oversaw the Penn State police department. They also told the Times that the sight of Paterno enjoying the student rally on his front lawn the day before his firing was insensitive in light of the Sandusky news.

"To me, it wasn’t about guilt or innocence in a legal sense,” said trustee Kenneth C. Frazier, who is leading Penn State's investigation into the Sandusky case. “It was about these norms of society that I’m talking about: that every adult has a responsibility for every other child in our community. And that we have a responsibility not to do the minimum, the legal requirement. We have a responsibility for ensuring that we can take every effort that’s within our power not only to prevent further harm to that child, but to every other child.”

I've been inundated with emails from Paterno supporters who insist that he did all he was supposed to do after Mike McQueary told him about the shower incident in 2002. For those of you who think that way, read that last paragraph again.

The trustees also told the Times that they received a short briefing from then PSU president Graham Spanier in May about the Sandusky grand jury investigation. But they said Spanier did not tell the board anything about his own testimony or what the nature of the investigation was. Most trustees got the impression from Spanier's briefing that it was not a major issue for the school.

“He should have told us a lot more,” Lubert said. “He should have let us know much more of the background. He was able to legally share his testimony and I think that he had an obligation to do that with the board so we could get more engaged with the problem.”

The Times story also recounts exactly how the Paterno firing went down, adding a few details to what we learned from Sally Jenkins' story in the Washington Post on Saturday.

"Shortly before 10 p.m., Fran Ganter, the associate athletic director for football, delivered an envelope to Paterno’s home, just off of Penn State’s campus. Inside the envelope was a telephone number. Paterno called the number, and [board chairman Steve] Garban answered. Then he passed the telephone to Surma, who was seated next to him. Surma asked if Paterno could hear him O.K. Paterno said that he could. Then Surma told Paterno of the trustees’ decision. “The board of trustees has determined effective immediately you are no longer the football coach,” Surma recalled saying.

"Then he heard a click. Paterno hung up.

"Surma and Garban sat at the table for a moment, numb. Then the telephone rang again. Surma answered. It was Paterno’s wife, Sue, who said, during the short conversation: “After 61 years, he deserved better.” Then she hung up on Surma."