HARRISBURG - Joe Paterno "probably" should not have been fired, Gov. Corbett said Thursday.
In his most expansive comments since the child-sex-abuse scandal erupted at Pennsylvania State University three years ago, the governor said that Paterno "technically complied with the law" in dealing with pedophile Jerry Sandusky and that university trustees should have let the iconic coach end his career when the season did.
"They probably shouldn't have fired him. They probably should have suspended him," Corbett said in an exclusive interview at his residence. "He probably should have been given the last three games, not on the sideline."
Two days after Corbett lost his reelection bid, his comments seemed to be a softening of his stance on the case and new ammunition for those who for years have assailed the trustees and Corbett - who as attorney general launched the Sandusky investigation - for blaming and firing Paterno.
The coach died in January 2012. An investigation commissioned by Penn State trustees later concluded that Paterno and other top administrators missed or ignored signs that Sandusky, a longtime assistant football coach, was sexually abusing young boys on and off campus. Three of those administrators, including former president Graham B. Spanier, are awaiting trial on charges related to the case.
Many critics who challenged those findings used social media this week to organize an effort to vote against Corbett. In the interview, the Republican governor acknowledged that his role in the case might have been one factor in his loss to Tom Wolf. He called it "one additional coal" on the fire.
Exit polls Tuesday showed that nearly 40 percent of the voters considered Corbett's handling of the investigation a very or somewhat important issue.
In the interview, Corbett said the board of trustees - on which he sits as governor - never recovered from the decision to fire the 85-year-old coach, because it caused its focus to shift from where it should have been: Sandusky's crimes against children.
The issue continues to roil the university. Paterno supporters succeeded in getting the trustees to hold a special meeting last month on the controversial report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh. And Corbett's comments came days after revelations that the NCAA had questioned its own authority to levy sanctions on Penn State - including a bowl ban and a $60 million fine.
The board meets in State College late next week for the last time this year, a meeting that, given the governor's remarks, could further stoke the issue.
"Revelations like this would have been meaningful three years ago, before the patently false narrative about Joe Paterno was cemented in minds across America," said Maribeth Roman Schmidt, a member of Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, one of the most active groups in the wake of the scandal. "We hope Tom Corbett will continue to share his regrets in an effort to restore the fine reputations of both Joe Paterno and Penn State University."
Anthony Lubrano, an outspoken alumnus from Chester County who joined the trustees in 2012, questioned the timing and sincerity of Corbett's comments. "It's a little too late," Lubrano said, "but at least he acknowledged it."
David La Torre, a spokesman for Penn State, declined Thursday to comment on the governor's remarks.
On the November 2011 night that the trustees decided to fire Paterno and Spanier, Corbett joined the meeting via telephone from his Harrisburg residence, he said in the interview. He did not participate in the voice vote or express an opinion, he said, because he had been privy to investigative and grand jury information in the case. According to Corbett, the only thing he said that night to the trustees was, "Remember the children."
But in an interview days after Paterno's firing, Corbett seemed to defend the board's vote. "I always have said your actions speak louder than your words," he told Fox News. "That should not have been able to continue. The actions, or the failure to act, while maybe not criminal, caused me not to have confidence in the president and in the coach."
This summer, the governor seemed less rigid. In an interview, he told the Associated Press he never condemned Paterno and "never will."
Pressed Thursday on whether firing Paterno was the right decision, Corbett, a career prosecutor before becoming governor, said: "You know me, I have to have evidence on everything."
If it was clear Paterno was aware of Sandusky's conduct and did nothing, he said, the punishment was valid. "But I'm not so sure it was clear to him," Corbett said. "And, technically, he complied with the law."
As for people who hold him responsible for Paterno's death, Corbett said: "I feel sad for the people who believe that. It's not the case. Obviously, cancer killed Joe Paterno."
Corbett went on: "When people say that, they are obviously looking for someone to blame. They're angry. And I understand being angry. But the person they should be angry at is Sandusky. He's the one who betrayed Paterno, the administration, the football team, the university, and all the fans."
Corbett said there was debate among his top campaign staff about whether he should address the Penn State scandal during the race. The overwhelming consensus, he said, was to avoid it, "let it quiet down" and not reopen wounds.
"There was no winning this battle with those who are fervently of the belief that I did what they believe I did," he said.
Corbett said he did not expect to discuss Penn State much going forward. But he was insistent on one point: "There was no conspiracy from law enforcement or from the administration or from Penn State to do anything to Joe Paterno."
Inquirer staff writer Allison Steele contributed to this article.