It will mark the end of an unprecedented tenure for any coach at any level of sport, given that Paterno first arrived in State College in 1950 as a 23-year-old assistant. It comes in the middle of a firestorm of criticism surrounding the university after allegations that former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky sexually abused boys over a 15-year period and top university officials covered it up.
Around 10 a.m., Penn State's football program sent out a mass text and email to players telling them to report to the squad room inside the Lasch Building for a mandatory meeting an hour later. It was then that Paterno informed the team and staff that he was bowing out.
"He's going to retire," quarterback Matt McGloin said after the meeting ended. "He's going to do what's best for Penn State and what's best for his family. He feels retiring is what he has to do. He's always going to do what he thinks is right for us players and the university."
Paterno addressed the team for about 15 minutes before the players broke into groups to meet with their position coaches. Tears welled in Paterno's eyes while addressing his team, many said, while players and members of the coaching staff struggled to hold back tears as well.
"Very difficult. I mean, I don't really know right now," cornerback Stephon Morris said, breaking down.
Little light was shed on the specifics of Paterno's message: "Continue to be great young men," running back Silas Redd recalled. "Continue to stay focused. Continue to have good character."
Said senior safety Drew Astorino: "He said we'll always be a team, not just for however many games this year or next year, but for all of our lives, and that we should never forget that."
Players had heard speculation through Twitter that Paterno was stepping down. But when a rare 11 a.m. meeting was called, linebacker Nate Stupar thought, "Something has to be up."
"I don't think we realized what's going on yet as a football team," McGloin said. "We're all very upset right now with the news."
Astorino said the team was handling the situation as well as possible.
"First of all, we feel horrible for the victims and their families," he said. "We think about them all the time. But at the same time, the 125 guys on this team had nothing to do with what happened years ago.
"We've been trying to deal with it by just leaning on each other. We have a great bond among these 125 players. We lean on each other for support, and we'll go on from there."
The fact that Paterno's reign as coach is ending was shocking news.
"The guy's been here for 60 years," said fullback Michael Zordich. "He's put his life into this program. As bad as we knew that this could get, I could tell you I never saw this coming. I didn't think that he would have to step down like this. I don't believe he's stepping down solely because of this. The power that he has to be that selfless and put this program in front of him and try to clear the program's name, it's unbelievable to me, and I can't even tell you how much respect I have for that man."
Paterno has been silent publicly. Jay Paterno, Joe's son and the team's quarterbacks coach, said only, "Let the statement speak for itself."
About an hour before the 11 a.m. meeting, Joe Paterno returned to his home on McKee Street early yesterday morning in the passenger seat of a white Mercedes SUV driven by his daughter, Mary Kay Hort. Reporters and cameramen surrounded the vehicle as it pulled into the driveway. When the garage door wouldn't open, they circled the block to avoid the cameras. When they returned moments later, Joe's son Scott opened the garage to let the vehicle inside, then told reporters to "get off the driveway." The family has asked police to keep media off the property.
Joe left his house at 10:50 a.m., to address the team. He then returned home, and camera tripods lined up across the street waiting to hear from him.
Community members have dropped letters in Paterno's mail slot. Others have placed gift baskets on his doorstep and have come out of their homes to express gratitude for Paterno's commitment to the university.
No. 12 Penn State hosts Nebraska at noon Saturday at Beaver Stadium. But with interim Tom Bradley, the team's defensive coordinator, in charge. Not Paterno, after 46 years, 409 victories, two national championships and millions of dollars donated to the university.
To see it end at all is a shock to all.
"I never thought I'd hear those words coming from Joe Paterno's mouth," Zordich said. "He's been here for so long."
Daily News sports writer Bernard Fernandez contributed to this story.