STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Joe Paterno was fired by the Penn State board of trustees Wednesday night despite saying he would retire as coach after the football season ended, brought down by the growing furor over the handling of child sex-abuse allegations against a former assistant coach.
Penn State President Graham Spanier was also ousted.
The 84-year-old Paterno, who has spent 61 years at the university, reacted to the decision from the front door of his home, NFL.com's Jeff Darlington reported.
Darlington: A surreal scene
"Right now, I'm not the coach. I've got to get used to that," Paterno said. "After 61 years, I've got to get used to that. OK? Thanks for coming."
Paterno later released the following statement:
"I am disappointed with the Board of Trustees' decision, but I have to accept it.
"A tragedy occurred, and we all have to have patience to let the legal process proceed. I appreciate the outpouring of support but want to emphasize that everyone should remain calm and please respect the university, its property and all that we value.
"I have been incredibly blessed to spend my entire career working with people I love. 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, the winningest coach in major college football history with 409 victories, learned of the board's decision at the end of a day that began with his decision to finish out his 46th season and leave.
It was not to be.
The dismissal prompted thousands of students to gather about two blocks from the campus, many chanting, "We want Joe! We want Joe!" Witnesses said some rocks and bottles were thrown, a lamppost was toppled and a news van was knocked over, its windows kicked out. About 100 police wearing helmets and carrying batons were on hand. There were no reports of arrests.
"The university is much larger than its athletic teams," board vice chair John Surma said during a packed news conference.
Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley will serve as interim coach while Rodney Erickson will be the interim school president. The university scheduled a news conference with Bradley for Thursday morning.
Asked what Paterno did wrong, Surma said: "I can't characterize that. We thought because of the difficulties that have engulfed our university, it was necessary to make changes."
Paterno said in a statement earlier Wednesday that he was "absolutely devastated" by the abuse case, in which his former assistant and one-time heir apparent, Jerry Sandusky, has been charged with molesting eight boys over 15 years, with some of the alleged assaults taking place at the Penn State football complex.
"This is a tragedy," Paterno said. "It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more."
Paterno has come under harsh criticism -- including from within the community known as Happy Valley -- for not taking more action in 2002 after then-graduate assistant and current assistant coach Mike McQueary came to him and reported seeing Sandusky in the Penn State showers with a young boy. Paterno notified the athletic director, Tim Curley, and a vice president, Gary Schultz.
Paterno is not a target of the criminal investigation, although Curley and Schultz have been charged with failing to report the incident to the authorities.
The firings came three days before Penn State hosts Nebraska in its final home game of the season, a day usually set aside to honor seniors on the team.
Penn State is 8-1 this year, and is No. 12 in The Associated Press poll.
The board had already said it would appoint a committee to investigate the "circumstances" that resulted in the indictment of Sandusky, and of Curley and Schultz.
In Washington, the U.S. Department of Education said it has launched an investigation into whether Penn State failed to report incidents of sexual abuse on campus, as required by federal law.
Sandusky, who retired from Penn State in June 1999, maintained his innocence through his lawyer. Curley has taken a leave of absence and Schultz has decided to step down. They also say they are innocent.
The committee will be appointed Friday at the board's regular meeting, which Gov. Tom Corbett said he plans to attend.
Sandusky founded The Second Mile charity in 1977, working with at-risk youths. Paterno is listed on The Second Mile's website as a member of its honorary board of directors, a group that includes several NFL Hall of Famers and coaches, including retired Pittsburgh Steelers stars Jack Ham and Franco Harris.
The Associated Press and NFL.com reporter Jeff Darlington contributed to this story.