STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Penn State's trustees fired coach Joe Paterno as outrage boiled up over how school leaders handled child sex abuse allegations against a former assistant coach.
Now it's the trustees who are increasingly feeling the heat.
The embattled, 32-member board meets Friday, its first gathering since November and the frantic first week after criminal charges were filed against Jerry Sandusky, Penn State's retired defensive coordinator.
Paterno was dismissed Nov. 9, the same day school President Graham Spanier also departed under pressure. The trustees pledged to search for the truth of the Sandusky case, and whether Penn State officials acted appropriately.
Some alumni and former players are now wondering whether the trustees themselves have been up front with them, and are questioning why Paterno was ousted without a full airing of the facts. Dozens are lining up for a chance to get on the board.
"The unfortunate circumstances that we've all been living through have put a spotlight on the leadership of the university," Maribeth Schmidt, a 1988 Penn State graduate and spokeswoman for Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, said Wednesday. The group started in mid-November, growing out of what she said was a common frustration among members over a lack of due process at the school.
Those concerns took center stage last week when current President Rodney Erickson – who replaced Spanier – hosted hundreds of alumni at town hall meetings in Pittsburgh, suburban Philadelphia and New York.
Some questioned why trustees haven't been more accountable, while others have asked why Penn State wasn't better prepared from a public relations perspective if school leaders knew about the investigation. They were told about the case in the spring.
State authorities arrested the 67-year-old Sandusky on Nov. 5, and he is now charged with sexually abusing 10 boys over a 15-year period. He maintains his innocence and remains is out on $250,000 bail while awaiting trial.
Some at the alumni meetings have sought answers specifically about why Paterno was fired after 61 years with the Penn State football program, the last 46 as head coach. Paterno led the Nittany Lions to 409 victories, more than any other major college football coach, and two national titles.
Paterno, 85, testified before the grand jury investigating Sandusky, and authorities have said he is not a target of their efforts.
But the state's top cop, among other critics, chastised Paterno and other school leaders for failing to report a 2002 allegation of abuse to authorities outside of the university.
Against that backdrop, Paterno announced his retirement effective the end of the 2011 season on the morning of Nov. 9. That day, he acknowledged that "with the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more."
The trustees announced his firing 12 hours later in a hastily-called news conference.
Mainly quiet since then, the trustees did answer queries posed at the town hall Jan.11 in Pittsburgh through a statement issued the next day, when chairman Steve Garban and vice chairman John Surma said Paterno was still a tenured faculty member, and that the school would honor the terms of his contract as if he had retired at the end of the season.
"Given the nature of the serious allegations contained in the grand jury report and the extraordinary circumstances then facing the university, the Board's unanimous judgment was that Coach Paterno could not be expected to continue to effectively perform his duties and that it was in the best interests of the university to make an immediate change in his status," Garban and Surma said.
Erickson, in New York last week, reiterated his support for the trustees' decision to fire Paterno.
"There comes a time to look at more than legal issues and look at the ability to lead, and I think at that point ability to lead was compromised," Erickson said.
But he added, "that in no way should reflect my feelings about the wonderful things Joe has contributed over the years."
His comments, along with the board's statement last week, seem to signal a change in the university's public stance toward Paterno. For instance, two days after Paterno was fired, Erickson said at a news conference that Paterno would be welcome at the Nov. 12 game against Nebraska as much as any other member of the public.
Last week, Erickson promised the university would pay tribute to Paterno. And as for Paterno, he and his family still donate to Penn State, including a $100,000 gift last month.
Paterno was also diagnosed days after his firing with what his family called a treatable form of lung cancer. He remained hospitalized Wednesday for observation for what the family said was a minor complication from treatments. Paterno has been undergoing chemotherapy and radiation.
"He's in the fight of his life ... It just seems so unfair," state Sen. Jake Corman said Tuesday in a speech on the floor of the statehouse praising Paterno's accomplishments. "It just shouldn't end this way."
In his first public comments since his firing, Paterno told The Washington Post last week he had "no inkling" of any allegations involving Sandusky prior to 2002. He also told the Post he would reserve judgment on Sandusky until after the legal resolution to the case.
Some of the coach's supporters have said the same approach should have been afforded to Paterno.
Among them are more than 520 ex-players who have signed an online letter organized by former players asking for "due process for Joe Paterno and the Penn State community."
Some critics of the trustees have called for wholesale changes in how the board operates in order to better promote transparency. The issues have also drawn unprecedented interest among potential candidates for three alumni-elected seats on the board that are up for a vote this spring.
Typically, about six to 12 candidates express interest. But Wednesday, Schmidt said Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship alone had received 30 applications already seeking the group's endorsement.
"Everybody is in this together in terms of wanting to preserve and enhance the reputation of Penn State as a world-class university," Schmidt said. "If there's a silver lining to any of it we have a lot more alumni interest and action and only good things can come out of that."
Former Penn State defensive back Adam Taliaferro, now a lawyer, also plans to run but has said he is not seeking the endorsement of Schmidt's group. Now an attorney, Taliaferro is walking again after suffering a serious spinal cord injury following a hit during a game at Ohio State in 2000.
In a letter this week promoting his candidacy, Taliaferro said "In speaking with our alumni, I believe our biggest issue is transparency." He pledged to make information and access to trustees more easily available.
The board Friday is scheduled to hear a presentation on an "overview of Intercollegiate Athletics," among other business. Also scheduled is the election of board officers and executive committee members.