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Penn State finally puts university ahead of football by firing Paterno

Hopefully, State College can begin healing Thursday morning.

Penn State's board of trustees did what it had to do Wednesday night, firing legendary football coach Joe Paterno for his role in the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal. The board also canned university president Graham Spanier, but that won't make many headlines. That's fitting, because Paterno was bigger than the university president -- which is precisely why the non-Penn State public was so enraged by the fact that Paterno and others high on the Penn State organizational chart did not call the police or follow up when then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary told Paterno in 2002 that he saw Sandusky molest a boy (estimated age: 10) in the shower at Penn State's football offices.

Paterno's larger-than-life stature also is nominally why Penn State students took to the streets in protest Wednesday night, flipping a news van, throwing rocks, destroying property and generally causing chaos. Were all of them genuinely upset about the way a coaching legend was shown the door? Of course not. Many were bundles of raging hormones who went out to raise hell because that's what everyone else was doing. The dudes mugging for the CNN cameras gave that away.

We'll pause here for a brief public service announcement: Kids, don't drink and approach people with microphones. YouTube is forever. Many of those students will have children of their own in a few years, and then they'll finally understand why so many felt so disgusted by the way those in power at Penn State handled this nightmare. They'll realize they embarrassed themselves, their families and their university. They'll feel awfully stupid about the way they acted Wednesday, so don't be too hard on them. The hangover will come. Someday, they'll realize Joe Paterno wasn't the victim in this case. A bunch of innocent kids were.

To his credit, Paterno thanked the rioter/revelers near his house and told them to go home. "Get a good night's sleep," he said. "Study. We've still got things to do." He also said this: "Thanks. And pray a little bit for those victims."

No. Pray a lot for them.

Now, the university community needs to repair itself. Wednesday's board of trustees meeting was a good start. Finally, someone at Penn State showed some backbone. Someone took the lead and worried more about the university and the community than the football coach. Granted, the board was hamstrung this week by bureaucratic red tape. Vice chair John Surma said as much in a news conference that sounded more like an inquisition as reporters and fans tried to shout over one another to get some answers. Surma, the CEO of U.S. Steel, handled the situation as well as anyone possibly could. He was spare with specifics -- other than to say that Paterno had been fired by phone -- because saying almost anything at this point could expose Penn State to lawsuits on multiple fronts.

This is the most important thing Surma said: "The university is much larger than its athletic teams."

That was the message the board sent loud and clear Wednesday. From the information contained in a grand jury presentment released Saturday, several powerful people at Penn State appeared to worry more about the brand of the football team than about the safety of a child. Other children -- some now young adults -- have come forward claiming abuse since that 2002 incident. If the charges against Sandusky are true, Paterno, McQueary, Spanier, former athletic director Tim Curley and former vice president Gary Schultz enabled a monster because not a single one of them thought to dial 9-1-1. That is inexcusable, and it speaks to a need to change the power structure and the culture at Penn State. For too long, the school and the athletic department have felt they didn't need to answer to anyone. Now, the Pennsylvania attorney general's office and the U.S. Department of Education will come in asking questions the administration can't ignore. People will be held accountable. The findings to come could be ugly, but sunshine doesn't only light the darkest recesses. It also helps heal.

Saturday, Penn State's football team will take the field against Nebraska. Fans should cheer loud and proud. The current players did nothing wrong. They got caught up in something before their times and above their heads. They deserve every roar.

Penn State graduates shouldn't hang their heads in shame. Their university's leaders failed. They did not. They had no part in Sandusky's alleged actions or in the inaction that followed. Sure, a bunch of students went nuts, but college kids tend to do stupid things in large groups. The majority of Penn State's students, faculty and employees did the same thing Wednesday that they do every day -- worked to make Penn State the wonderful university it is.

They are ... Penn State.

Not Jerry Sandusky. Not Graham Spanier. Not even Joe Paterno.

Because Penn State is bigger than all of them.