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By Neil Rudel

Coaches at all levels know, and even joke, that they're hired to be fired.

That apparently now includes the winningest college football coach of all time.

The greatest tenure in sports history - college or pro - ended abruptly late Wednesday night when the Penn State Board of Trustees voted unanimously to fire Joe Paterno.

Paterno's 409th victory two weeks ago turned out to be the last of an incredible 61-year career -- 46 as the Nittany Lions' head coach -- and while he may not have been the best coach of all time or he may not have won the most titles, no one presided over a more incredible run.

Ever.

Paterno's legacy is intact. It is also stained in that it took horrific allegations of sexual abuse of children by former defensive coordinator and top aide Jerry Sandusky and Penn State's alleged coverup to end it.

His win total will never be matched.

He led unbeaten or championship teams in five decades.

He was a dynamic recruiter with a driven personality and an infectious sense of humor that drove Penn State from predominantly an Eastern program into a significant player on the national scene.

He taught us stability, loyalty, generosity, academic integrity and combined it with a consistent, hard-nosed defense and a steadiness of leadership that will surely chisel him into the Mount Rushmore backdrop of coaching legends alongside the likes of Rockne, Bryant, Lombardi and Shula.

But his greatest attribute was successfully getting a university to match his vision for what a football program could do for a school, a town and a region as a half-dozen expansions to Beaver Stadium built Penn State into an empire.

And he did it with class -- often taking a knee rather than punching in a late touchdown to humiliate an outmanned opponent, emphasizing graduation rates and scribbling hand-written notes back to many fans he touched along the way.

Paterno's loyalty was returned by Penn State in full, and only when it was justifiably left with no choice -- in the wake of the most embarrassing scandal ever to hit a college sports program -- did it pull the plug.

The end for Paterno, as ugly as it became, will not be overshadowed by his extraordinary body of work.

The last thing Penn State wanted to do was fire the beloved JoePa, and it proved that over the years by rolling over his contract repeatedly, despite being unable to match the massive shadow he cast when the program was the nation's best in the 1980s, playing for the national championship three times in five years, and when it peaked in 1994.

While other than a five-year period in the early 2000s, the Lions remained a winner, but 9-4 became the norm, and much of the Nittany Nation has been more than ready for a change and can only hope that all these rumors of Urban Meyer checking out property in Boalsburg are true.

Even though he's 84, no longer recruited off campus, saw his team blown out in big games too often, quit doing his radio show two years ago and coached 21 games from the press box in the last six years because of physical problems, he stubbornly hung on.

Sadly, it didn't have to come to this.

Paterno knew it was his last year, but he also had to know the level of national shame inflicted by allegations that began and continued under his watch.

Rather than trying to remain the face of the program for conceivably two more months through the bowl game -- something the university absolutely could not afford -- he could have stepped down gracefully.
Instead, he challenged the board to a game of chicken by saying he planned to coach out the season. And the board didn't blink.

For so many years, Paterno was bigger than Penn State.

Wednesday night, while attempting to take the first step toward rebuilding its reputation and re-shaping its future, Penn State finally sent the message that the institution cannot take orders from the football coach.

Even if that football coach is Joe Paterno.
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Neil Rudel is a Beta Sig and 1978 graduate of Penn State who has covered the Nittany Lions since his days at The Daily Collegian. He was Pledge No. 29 in Beta Sig's fall class of 1977.

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