By Ian Simpson
STATE COLLEGE, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - Famed U.S. college football coach Joe Paterno and the president of Penn State University were fired on Wednesday in fallout from a child-abuse scandal and cover-up involving a former assistant coach and school officials.
The move by the university's board of trustees thwarted an attempt by Paterno, 84 and one of the most iconic names in American sports, to leave the team on his own terms. It triggered largely peaceful protests on campus from students.
"I am disappointed with the Board of Trustees' decision, but I have to accept it," Paterno said in a statement.
"I am grateful beyond words to all of the coaches, players and staff who have been a part of this program. And to all of our fans and supporters, my family and I will be forever in your debt."
Paterno said earlier on Wednesday he would step down at the end of this season, a few weeks from now, and suggested the trustees should not worry about his status.
But the trustees said they needed to make immediate changes "in the best interests of the university" given the grave issues now facing it.
Spanier had been president of Penn State for 16 years. His departure had been widely rumored on Wednesday. The announcement about Paterno triggered a stunned gasp from those at the press conference.
The trustees spent several hours on Wednesday evening deciding how to handle the unprecedented crisis that has engulfed the prestigious university in central Pennsylvania.
"These decisions were made after careful deliberations," said Surma. "We don't yet know all the facts and there are many details that are yet to be worked out."
Penn State, its football program and Paterno were thrown into turmoil on Saturday when charges were filed against 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.
The situation was a tragedy and "one of the great sorrows of my life," Paterno said in his statement earlier.
"With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more," Paterno said of his actions after learning of the allegations about Sandusky in 2002.
Spanier, who was criticized for not speaking out earlier, was contrite.
"There is wisdom in a transition in leadership so that there are no distractions in allowing the university to move forward," he said in a statement.
"I was stunned and outraged to learn that any predatory act might have occurred in a university facility or by someone associated with the university."
The board named Dr. Rodney Erickson, executive vice president and provost, as the university's interim president.
Earlier, the U.S. Department of Education said it would launch an investigation into the conduct at Penn State, which must disclose criminal offenses committed on campus each year.
"If these allegations of sexual abuse are true then this is a horrible tragedy for those young boys," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement. "If it turns out that some people at the school knew of the abuse and did nothing or covered it up, that makes it even worse."
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 emails asking him to remove Sandusky, left an empty chair and a blue ribbon to honor the alleged victims.
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. All three men, through their lawyers, have denied the charges and maintained their innocence.
Paterno held a short meeting with coaching staff and players on Wednesday, which participants described as tearful and highly emotional.
The coach, with his thick, black-rimmed glasses and navy windbreaker, has been the face of Penn State football for generations.
Paterno's firing and Bradley's appointment sets up high drama on Saturday, when Penn State will take an 8-1 record into its final home game of the year against the University of Nebraska.
Under Paterno, Penn State 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.
The scandal has rocked 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.
Hundreds of emotional, chanting, but mostly peaceful students converged on the university administration building late on Wednesday to protest the firing of Paterno.
The firing also stunned "Paternoville," the tent city that sprouts outside the football stadium before every home game, when students camp out to be first in line for good seats.
"Everything is calm at Beaver Stadium -- just a lot of emotions. We do not agree with any irrational decisions made downtown. Safe up here," said a Paternoville tweet.
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. Beaver Stadium, which seats about 106,000, is one of the largest.
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.
University 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 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.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson in State College, Mark Shade in Harrisburg and Dave Warner in Philadelphia; Writing by Ros Krasny; Editing by John O'Callaghan and Eric Walsh)