HARRISBURG - As the clock ran down on his coaching career, Joe Paterno offered a damning assessment of Pennsylvania State University's top administrators and how they dealt with reports of Jerry Sandusky's abusing children, according to former assistant football coach Mike McQueary.

"He said Old Main screwed it up," McQueary testified in Dauphin County Court on Monday, using the name of Penn State's administration building to denote those who worked in it.

Then, just before he was fired - his reputation in shambles as a result of the Sandusky scandal - Paterno offered a warning, McQueary testified: The administrators could not be trusted, and would "try to scapegoat" the young assistant coach, who had told him and other top officials in 2001 that he saw Sandusky sexually assault a boy in a campus shower.

"He said, 'The university's going to come down hard on you,' " McQueary testified.

It was the first time McQueary had offered such recollections of his conversations with Paterno. The testimony was among the most dramatic in the opening day of a preliminary hearing for former Penn State president Graham B. Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley, and vice president Gary Schultz.

They are accused of being complicit in a cover-up that permitted Sandusky to continue to prey on boys even after McQueary reported the locker-room rape. They are charged with perjury, child endangerment, obstruction, and failing to report abuse, and could face prison if convicted. Lawyers for all three have said they are innocent.

In previous grand jury testimony, the three administrators claimed to have had only limited knowledge of allegations that Sandusky had acted inappropriately with young boys on campus. In the case of the 2001 incident, all three said McQueary did not convey the seriousness of what he had seen.

A Centre County jury convicted Sandusky last year of 45 counts of sexual abuse of 10 boys, all of whom were involved in Sandusky's Second Mile charity for disadvantaged youths. Sandusky is serving from 30 to 60 years in prison.

After Monday's court proceedings, Penn State trustee Anthony Lubrano questioned the veracity of McQueary's testimony.

"I'm not sure if the conversations between him and Joe were true," Lubrano said. "Today was the first time we've heard this. He's had plenty of time to float this notion. . . . I wish Joe were here - I could ask him." Paterno died in 2012 of cancer.

McQueary's testimony added several details to a saga that has been unfolding for close to two years.

After witnessing Sandusky assaulting the boy in 2001, McQueary, then a 26-year-old graduate assistant, said he went to Paterno's house the next morning to tell him.

"He slumped back in his chair; he was significantly saddened," McQueary testified. "He said, 'You've done the right thing.' "

In later meetings with Curley and Schultz, McQueary said, he left no doubt that he had seen "a sexual act, a molestation act, with a minor."

McQueary estimated the boy to be 10 to 12 years old. Ultimately, the incident was never reported to police.

It was years later, after the Sandusky scandal exploded in November 2011, that Paterno told McQueary that the administration had "screwed up" and McQueary should be wary, McQueary testified.

In sometimes-sharp exchanges with defense lawyers, McQueary said he never pressed Schultz or Curley for details about what had happened to the 2001 investigation.

"I didn't handle this the perfect way, if that's what you're getting at," he told Spanier's attorney, Elizabeth Ainslie. "There are things I could have done. . . . I'll point my finger at myself before anyone else."

McQueary said he had listened to school authorities and did not challenge what they told him. "I'm at fault for that," he said. "I'll take responsibility for that."

A grand jury investigation into the scandal alleged that Penn State's top administrators had two chances to stop Sandusky. One was in 1998, when a mother of a young boy reported that Sandusky had inappropriate contact with her son in a campus shower. The other was in 2001, when McQueary raised his allegation.

Thomas Harmon, former head of campus police, testified that he oversaw the 1998 investigation. In that incident, the boy's mother went to university police after her 11-year-old son said he had showered with Sandusky after exercising together. Sandusky gave the boy a "bear hug" from behind while both were naked.

Over the following month, Schultz and Curley e-mailed with Harmon several times, asking for updates on the investigation. Spanier was copied on two of those exchanges, according to the e-mails displayed by Deputy Attorney General Bruce Beemer. The child was interviewed by a representative from the Department of Public Welfare, and an investigator also spoke to Sandusky. Harmon testified that he heard Sandusky admit he had showered with the boy but said it was just "horsing around."

The District Attorney's Office decided not to file charges, Harmon testified. He said he believed Spanier, Curley, and Schultz had all been apprised of the developments in the case.

Harmon said he was never told about McQueary's 2001 allegations.

If he had, he testified, "I would have told Mr. Schultz, we're going to contact the D.A.'s Office and pursue it as an investigation."

Joan Coble, a former administrative assistant to Schultz, testified that at some point before 2005, Schultz told her he had placed a manila folder in a locked drawer where he kept confidential files, some of which involved employee conduct. The folder was labeled with Sandusky's name, and he told her she was not to look in it.

"I just remember thinking, I wonder what Jerry has done?" Coble said.

In November 2011, the file surfaced after Kim Belcher, another administrative assistant, retrieved it for Schultz after he was charged in the case. Belcher testified Monday that Schultz never asked her to bring him the file, but that she did so to be helpful once she saw it in the drawer. The file contained, among other things, handwritten notes by Schultz regarding the 1998 Sandusky incident.

Contact Allison Steele at 610-313-8113 or at asteele@phillynews.com.