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“He will go down as the greatest football coach in the history of the game,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said after his former team, the Florida Gators, beat Penn State 37-24 in the 2011 Outback Bowl.

Paterno roamed the sidelines for 46 seasons, his thick-rimmed glasses, windbreaker and jet-black sneakers as familiar as the Nittany Lions’ blue and white uniforms.

The reputation he built looked even more impressive because he insisted that on-field success not come at the expense of high graduation rates.

But in the middle of his 46th season, the legend was shattered. Paterno was engulfed in a child sex abuse scandal when a former trusted assistant, Jerry Sandusky, was accused of molesting 10 boys over a 15-year span, sometimes in the football building.

Outrage built quickly when the state’s top cop said the coach hadn’t fulfilled a moral obligation to go to the authorities when a graduate assistant, Mike McQueary, told Paterno he saw Sandusky with a young boy in the showers of the football complex in 2002.

At a preliminary hearing for the school officials, McQueary testified that he had seen Sandusky attacking the child with his hands around the boy’s waist but said he wasn’t 100 percent sure it was intercourse. McQueary described Paterno as shocked and saddened and said the coach told him he had “done the right thing” by reporting the encounter.

Paterno waited a day before alerting school officials and never went to the police.

“I didn’t know which way to go … and rather than get in there and make a mistake,” Paterno said in the Post interview.

“You know, (McQueary) didn’t want to get specific,” Paterno said. “And to be frank with you I don’t know that it would have done any good, because I never heard of, of, rape and a man. So I just did what I thought was best. I talked to people that I thought would be, if there was a problem, that would be following up on it.”

When the scandal erupted in November, Paterno said he would retire following the 2011 season. He also said he was “absolutely devastated” by the abuse case.

“This is a tragedy,” he said. “It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”

But the university trustees fired Paterno, effective immediately. Graham Spanier, one of the longest-serving university presidents in the nation, also was fired.

Paterno was notified by phone, not in person, a decision that board vice chairman John Surma regretted, trustees said. Lanny Davis, the attorney retained by trustees as an adviser, said Surma intended to extend his regrets over the phone before Paterno hung up him.

After weeks of escalating criticism by some former players and alumni about a lack of transparency trustees last week said they fired Paterno in part because he failed a moral obligation to do more in reporting the 2002 allegation.

An attorney for Paterno on Thursday called the board’s comments self-serving and unsupported by the facts. Paterno fully reported what he knew to the people responsible for campus investigations, lawyer Wick Sollers said.

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