WASHINGTON — Former Penn State gridiron coach Joe Paterno, fired in the wake of a child sex scandal involving an assistant coach, has admitted in his first interview since the crisis that he “didn’t know exactly how to handle it.”
Paterno was fired last November for not having taken tougher action against assistant coach Jerry Sandusky after being told about an incident in a locker room shower in which the coach was allegedly molesting a 10-year-old boy.
“I didn’t know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was,” Paterno told the Washington Post in an interview posted Saturday on the newspaper’s website.
“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.”
Sandusky, on the Penn State University staff from 1969 through 1999, is facing trial after being accused of more than 50 counts of molesting 10 boys over an 11-year period. He has denied the charges.
“I’m sick about it” if Sandusky is proven guilty, Paterno said.
Paterno’s 61-year coaching career was ended with a phone-call firing that sparked a riot around the Penn State campus in State College, Pennsylvania.
Bill O’Brien, offensive coordinator for the NFL’s New England Patriots, signed a five-year deal last Saturday to become the first new gridiron head coach in 46 years for the Nittany Lions, replacing 85-year-old legend Paterno.
Paterno was in a wheelchair with a broken pelvis and weak from chemotherapy for lung cancer for the exclusive interview with the Post.
He said he was “shocked and saddened” by the events and struggled to cope when told of Sandusky’s actions.
“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 said.
Paterno said he can only wonder how Sandusky escaped detection for so long.
“I wish I knew,” Paterno said. “I don’t know the answer to that. It’s hard.”
Paterno said he had “no inkling” Sandusky might be a pedophile but has also said that when he learned of the incident, “In hindsight, I wish I had done more.”
Former Penn State athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz have pleaded not guilty to charges of perjury and failing to report suspected child abuse.
Paterno forwarded the report to his superiors to meet his legal obligations and has not been accused of wrongdoing, but his iconic image was diminished for not taking greater action against Sandusky, 67.
“I’m not as concerned about me,” Paterno said. “What has happened to me has been great… I’ve had a wonderful experience at Penn State. I don’t want to walk away from this thing bitter. I want to be helpful.”
Paterno revealed he was in his pajamas when an assistant athletic director came to the door, handed Paterno’s wife Sue a slip of paper with the telephone number of John Surma, the vice chairman of trustees. Paterno dialed the number.
“In the best interests of the university, you are terminated,” Surma told him.
He hung up, told his wife and she called back, saying, “After 61 years, he deserved better.”
Paterno won more games than any other coach in history and the gridiron team’s fame helped enlarge the university, its reputation and academic offerings.
“Whether it’s fair I don’t know, but they do it,” Paterno said. “You would think I ran the show here.”
Many people did think that, which made Paterno’s silence in the days after his firing a source of criticism.
“I wanted everybody to settle down,” Paterno said.
But Paterno also wanted to defend himself through talking to the Post as he recounted the 2002 incident when he was told by assistant coach Mike McQueary about Sandusky’s alleged actions with a boy in the shower.
“He was very upset and he was very reluctant to get into it,” Paterno said. “He 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. 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?’”
Paterno arranged a meeting between Schultz, who oversaw university police, Curley and McQueary, who said he had given the pair a more graphic description of what he saw that he had given to Paterno.
“He didn’t want to get specific,” Paterno said.
“I don’t know that it would have done any good, because I never heard 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.”