STATE COLLEGE, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - A child sexual abuse scandal brought down one of the most iconic names in American sports on Wednesday as Penn State University football coach Joe Paterno said he would retire amid criticism he did not do enough to stop the alleged crimes by a former assistant coach.
The situation was a tragedy and “one of the great sorrows of my life,” Paterno, 84, said in a statement, adding he would retire at the end of this season.
“With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more,” Paterno said of his actions years ago after learning of the allegations about long-time assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.
Sandusky, 67, is accused of sexually abusing at least eight boys over more than a decade. Two other university officials have been charged with not reporting an incident in 2002 when Sandusky allegedly was seen sexually assaulting a child.
Lawyers for all three men have said they deny the charges and maintain their innocence.
Graham Spanier, Penn State’s president for 16 years and a family therapist by training, would be the next to go, local media said. The Express-Times newspaper, citing a source close to the university’s board of trustees, said Spanier would either resign or be voted out by the end of the day.
The trustees will meet in emergency session on Wednesday evening to discuss how to respond to the scandal, said Tom Poole, Penn State’s vice president for administration.
Spanier remains university president for now, he said.
The charges against Sandusky, a former defensive coordinator, and accusations the abuse was covered up for years by school officials have shaken the university and its football program.
A local artist painted over the image of Sandusky sitting next to Paterno on the “Inspiration” mural he created on campus in 2001 to honor people he admired. Michael Pilato, who said he got hundreds of e-mails asking him to remove Sandusky, left an empty chair and a blue ribbon to honor the alleged victims.
“I am absolutely devastated by the developments in this case,” Paterno said. “I grieve for the children and their families, and I pray for their comfort and relief.”
Paterno, in his 46th year as head coach of the Nittany Lions and winner of two national championships, has been criticized for not doing more to intervene when incidents of Sandusky’s abuse came to light in 2002.
Sandusky allegedly recruited his victims from “The Second Mile,” a charity he founded to help troubled children, and subjected them to a pattern of escalating abuse. A preliminary hearing originally set for Wednesday was postponed to December 7.
Former athletic director Tim Curley and former finance official Gary Schultz were charged on Monday with failing to alert police after they were told Sandusky was seen sodomizing a young boy in the locker room showers in 2002. They were also charged with perjury in their statements to a grand jury.
College football is hugely popular in the United States, drawing massive television audiences every Saturday in the late summer and fall and filling huge stadiums.
Teams generate million of dollars in revenue and successful ones raise the profile of their universities. That, in turn, helps fundraising — such as the $2 billion capital campaign now under way at Penn State.
Paterno held a short meeting with coaching staff and players on Wednesday, which participants described as tearful and highly emotional.
Many students have rallied around Paterno, who with his thick, black-rimmed glasses and blue windbreaker has been the face of Penn State football for generations.
“This has to be the saddest day of the school year,” said Chloe DeOnna, 18. One woman wearing a Penn State T-shirt left flowers at Paterno’s front door.
Several thousand students rallied in front of his home on Tuesday night before racing through downtown streets, chanting football slogans, to the white-columned administration building to support the famed coach and defend the university.
Paterno’s resignation sets up high drama on Saturday, when Penn State will take an 8-1 record into its final home game of the season against the University of Nebraska.
It was always likely to be the last game in 106,000-seat Beaver Stadium for Paterno, who is in the last year of his contract and has become more frail in recent years.
Under Paterno, Penn State has won 409 games, a record for a coach in major college football. He set the record when the Nittany Lions beat the University of Illinois on October 29, just days before Sandusky was charged on November 5.
At “Paternoville,” the tent city set up outside Beaver Stadium before each home game, fans were resolute.
“We remember the victims but aren’t turning our backs on the players,” said a post on Paternoville’s Twitter feed.
Still, the scandal has cast a pall over much of the sprawling campus of about 45,000 students in State College in central Pennsylvania, the flagship of about two dozen Penn State campuses across the state.
“This has just been devastating for business,” said Terry Losch, owner of Rapid Transit Sporting Goods just off campus, which sells Penn State merchandise.
Tom Corbett, the governor of Pennsylvania, said it was “unfortunate that (Paterno’s) retirement is taking place under the cloud that is going on.
“It is a sad day, It’s been a sad day for a number of days,” he told reporters in the state capital, Harrisburg.
Corbett, an ex-officio member of Penn State’s board, was also the state’s attorney general when authorities started to investigate Sandusky.
Corbett would not discuss the case, saying only that “he who preys on a child is the worst person in the world.”
Penn State’s trustees voted on Tuesday to name a special committee to determine any failures over Sandusky’s alleged crimes and officials’ response, saying they were “outraged by the horrifying details contained in the grand jury report.”
That report detailed alleged sexual assaults of eight boys by Sandusky over 15 years — during his time as a Penn State coach and after his retirement in 1999.
A ninth potential victim, now in his 20s, has since come forward and Pennsylvania police have set up a hotline to call.