STATE COLLEGE, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - Penn State University struggled to stem the damage on Thursday from a sex abuse scandal that ended the 46-year career of football coach Joe Paterno, one of the most revered U.S. sports figures.
Paterno, 84, was fired late on Wednesday after it was revealed he was told in 2002 that his former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky engaged in allegedly sexually inappropriate behavior with a young boy in a campus locker room. While Paterno told his boss, he did not call the police.
Chanting “Hell no, Joe won’t go” and “We want Joe back,” thousands of students took to the streets overnight in this central Pennsylvania university town to protest the decision, overturning a television van in a demonstration in which some police dispersed pepper spray.
Police said more than a dozen people were arrested and that there were plans to boost security at Penn State’s final home football game on Saturday, although interim head coach Tom Bradley said he was not concerned about the safety of players.
“We are obviously in a very unprecedented situation,” Bradley told a news conference on Thursday of the challenge facing him. “I am going to find a way to restore confidence and start a healing process with everybody.”
Sandusky was charged on Saturday with sexually abusing eight young boys over more than a decade and former Penn State athletic director Tim Curley and former finance official Gary Schultz, were charged with failing to report an incident.
Sandusky, Curley and Schultz have all denied the charges.
Along with Paterno, Penn State University President Graham Spanier was also fired on Wednesday after 16 years in the job.
Paterno, in a statement on Wednesday announcing that he would resign hours before he was sacked, said: “With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”
He met his legal obligation by reporting the abuse allegation to Curley, legal experts said. But he stands accused of moral failings for not calling police.
A ninth possible victim, now in his 20s, has since come forward and Pennsylvania police have set up a telephone hotline to receive information about the sexual abuse allegations.
“I’m still a big Penn State fan, but I wholeheartedly agree with the firing,” said Paul Brosky, 40, of Horsham, Pennsylvania, wearing a Penn State shirt. He said Paterno should have reported the incident once he saw nothing was being done.
The interim university president, Rodney Erickson, said on Thursday there would be a full investigation “to determine what failures occurred, who is responsible, and what measures are necessary to insure that this never happens at our University again and that those responsible are held fully accountable.”
The scandal has rocked the sprawling campus of about 45,000 students in State College, the flagship of about two dozen Penn State campuses across the state.
Severin Laskowski, 19, who works in a local restaurant, worried about Saturday’s final home game against the University of Nebraska.
“It will probably be pretty violent. I think there will be another riot,” Laskowski said. “I think a lot of people feel really bad and others are pissed off.”
State College Police Department Captain John Gardner said he plans to have every available officer working the game and warned students not to take to the streets, describing the crowds who protested on Wednesday evening as a “riotous mob.”
“If you truly support Coach Joe or Penn State, this is not the way,” Gardner told a press conference. “Stay off the street. The behavior of last night will not be tolerated.”
Tom Corbett, the governor of Pennsylvania said Paterno supporters who protested on Wednesday evening were “knuckle heads” and urged people to remain calm.
Corbett, an ex-officio member of Penn State’s board who was state attorney general when authorities started to investigate Sandusky, said he supported the firing of Paterno and Spanier.
“When it comes to the safety of children, there can be no margin of error,” Corbett told a press conference. He said he was “disappointed” in the two men for their lack of oversight.
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. Penn State’s Beaver Stadium, which seats about 106,000, is one of the largest.
Sports experts said Penn State’s football program will struggle since potential players now have to decide if they want to play for a school clouded by scandal and without their famed coach, who was known for pushing students to be the best they could be both on the playing field and in the classroom.
“I think the fallout on recruiting and the team will be extremely long-lived. Joe Paterno is Penn State football,” said Josh Helmholdt, Midwest football recruiting analyst at rivals.com. “Other schools are already trying to phone Penn State’s recruits.”
Teams generate million of dollars in revenue and successful ones raise the profile of their universities. Questions have been raised whether the controversy could harm the university’s current $2 billion capital campaign.
The university urged donors not to reconsider pledges and assured supporters no funds or philanthropic resources will be used for legal expenses for the university employees charged.
Bill Prizer, who graduated from Penn State in 1967, said he doesn’t plan on curbing his giving. “Paterno has done nothing legally wrong, but he did transgress a moral boundary,” said Prizer, who now owns a wealth management firm.
Paterno has won two national championships, more games than any other college football coach and the adoration of Penn State’s students, alumni and staff. He had said earlier on Wednesday that he would step down at the end of the season. (Additional reporting by Edith Honan in State College, Mark Shade in Harrisburg, Ros Krasny in Boston and Dave Warner in Philadelphia; Writing by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Mark Egan and Vicki Allen)