STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - For 11 years, Joe Paterno's bronze image had welcomed visitors to Pennsylvania State University's Beaver Stadium, his pants rolled up in his signature style, a finger raised in victory.
But before most of the campus awoke Sunday, the statue was gone, removed amid a clatter of jackhammers and a few cries of "We are Penn State!"
Workers in hard hats surrounded the sculpture just after dawn and within hours had excised the campus' most visible tribute to the late head football coach who devoted his life to the university but whose reputation had been tarnished by allegations he enabled a child predator for more than a decade.
The White House said President Obama believed removing the statue "was the right decision." The several dozen stunned Paterno fans who gathered at the site could not have agreed less.
"This isn't going to help anything," said Chris Stathes, 40, of Bellefonte, who stood by as a forklift hauled the toppled statue behind stadium walls. "This isn't going to heal anything."
Penn State senior Brittany Snider wiped away tears.
Kayla Weaver, a senior and third-generation Penn Stater, said: "You can't erase history, and you can't erase a legend. You just can't." University president Rodney Erickson said Sunday the statue had become a distraction as the campus continues to recover from one of the worst crises in its history - the conviction last month of former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky on 45 counts of child sex abuse, and a scathing report issued July 12 accusing Paterno and several other top administrators of covering up his crimes.
On Monday, the NCAA is expected to deliver another blow with the announcement of "corrective and punitive" measures against the school for its handling of the Sandusky scandal.
"Were it to remain, the statue would be a recurring wound to the multitude of individuals across the nation who have been the victims of child abuse," Erickson said in a statement released just before 7 a.m.
By that time, the work of taking down the statue had already begun.
Just before 6:30 a.m., more than two dozen police officers and construction workers arrived at Beaver Stadium, carrying out their mission with military precision.
Students were shooed away and barricades went up at the end of the streets. Officers covered the sculpture behind a hastily erected chain-link fence draped with a blue tarpaulin. Within minutes, the racket of jackhammers had begun.
By 8:30, Paterno's 7-foot, 900-pound image had been encased in sheet wrap and carted away. It remained unclear Sunday where the statue would be stored permanently.
Margaret Walsh knelt in prayer before the stumps of metal that remained, tears streaming down her face. An obstetrician/gynecologist and Penn State alumna who once baby-sat Paterno's children, she had driven nearly six hours from Chesterfield, Va., to pay the statue her respects.
"Everything is being done so fast," she said. "I pray to God that justice be done and that he be vindicated."
Nearby, a construction worker with a Nittany Lions logo plastered to his helmet took down signs pointing visitors to "Statue Parking."
Meanwhile, Paterno's family seethed.
"Tearing down the statue does not serve the victims of Jerry Sandusky's horrible crimes or help heal the Penn State community," they said in a statement.
By evening, supporters had left a candle and several bouquets of flowers in front of the family's home.
Sources close to the university described the decision to remove the sculpture as ultimately Erickson's call but one that suggested the university president hoped to avoid the violence that erupted on campus in November after Penn State trustees voted to fire Paterno for his handling of the Sandusky crisis.
Erickson had signaled last week he would likely decide the statue's fate on Monday. By acting early Sunday instead, he assured that few people would be on hand to witness or possibly disrupt the removal.
Though he solicited opinions from several trustees in a conference call Thursday, Erickson told almost no one about his decision until the process had already begun, the sources said.
When Penn State unveiled the statue in 2001, Paterno had achieved near-beatification on campus as much for his record number of wins as for his commitment to academics.
With its rolled-up khaki slacks and black tennis shoes in bronze, the figure stood flanked by larger statues of football players and plaques commemorating each of the head coach's years with the team.
Paterno's name still is still affixed to several campus buildings, including the university library and a Catholic student center named for his wife, Sue. Those will remain, Erickson said Sunday.
"I had never seen a football game in my life," Angelo Di Maria, the sculptor who created the statue, said from his home in Reading on Sunday. "I had to take pictures of him from the sideline disguised as a reporter because it was supposed to be a surprise."
But the same year Di Maria finished his work, Paterno and others were making decisions that 10 years later would irreparably change their reputations.
According to the report issued July 12 by former FBI Director Louis Freeh, the late coach helped shape Penn State's response to two early allegations against Sandusky, in 1998 and 2001. In the latter, university officials opted not to notify authorities after a graduate assistant reported seeing Sandusky molesting a boy in a locker-room shower, Freeh said.
Considering the findings, even some of Paterno's most ardent fans began to question the appropriateness of leaving the statue up. And in the last week, a growing chorus began to call for its removal.
But Colby Walk, 40, who stood by as workers cleaned up the last traces of debris Sunday, worried the news would only get worse with the expected announcement Monday of NCAA penalties, a threat that could include the "death penalty," which would eliminate the university's football program for a season or more.
"One hundred thousand people fill this stadium every week for eight weeks," Walk said. "If you give the death penalty to the program, you give the death penalty to this town."
Glancing at the sculpture's remains, he added: "It's kind of like we already have the death penalty."
Inquirer staff writers Joe Juliano and Susan Snyder contributed to this article.