The NCAA, acting with rare speed, said it will spell out the penalties on Monday. The governing body did not disclose further details.
If precedent holds from recent cases, Penn State will face a loss of scholarships and a multi-year ban from bowl games — and with it, the financial windfall and showcase that comes with post-season play.
Yet NCAA President Mark Emmert cautioned last week that he hasn't ruled out the possibility of shutting down the Penn State football program altogether, saying he had "never seen anything as egregious" as the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal.
A harsh penalty would have repercussions well beyond football, whose large profits — more than $50 million, according to the U.S. Department of Education — subsidize dozens of other sports programs at the school. The potential for a historic NCAA penalty also worries a region whose economy is built at least partially on the strength and popularity of the football program.
"It's going to kill our town," said Derek Leonard, 31, a university construction project co-ordinator who grew up in the area.
Emmert has seemingly put the Penn State matter on the fast track. Other cases that were strictly about violating the NCAA rulebook have dragged on for months and even years.
As Penn State awaited its fate, construction workers took down the larger-than-life monument to its Hall of Fame coach — on the six-month anniversary of his death from lung cancer at age 85.
The Paterno family released a statement criticizing Penn State's decision to remove the statue, saying it was made in haste and before all the facts about Paterno's role in the Sandusky scandal were known.
"Tearing down the statue of Joe Paterno does not serve the victims of Jerry Sandusky's horrible crimes or help heal the Penn State community. We believe the only way to help the victims is to uncover the full truth," said the family, which has vowed its own investigation following the release of an investigative report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh that found that Paterno and three other top Penn State administrators concealed sex abuse claims against Sandusky.
"Despite (Freeh's) obviously flawed and one-sided presentation, the university believes it must acquiesce and accept that Joe Paterno has been given a fair and complete hearing," the statement said.
The bronze statue, weighing more than 900 pounds, was erected in 2001 in honour of Paterno's record-setting 324th Division I coaching victory and his "contributions to the university." Students chanted, "We are Penn State" as it came down Sunday morning.
Penn State President Rodney Erickson said he decided the sculpture had to go because it "has become a source of division and an obstacle to healing."
In Washington, the White House said President Barack Obama believed "it was the right decision."
But the vast majority of fans gathering outside Beaver Stadium to watch the statue's removal disagreed. At least one woman wept, others expressed anger at the decision, and nearly all said they continued to support their beloved "JoePa."
"I think it was an act of cowardice on the part of the university," said Mary Trometter, of Williamsport, who wore a shirt bearing Paterno's image. She said she felt betrayed by university officials who pledged greater transparency but then failed to announce its decision on the statute until workers arrived shortly after dawn to begin tearing it down.
In NCAA terms, the July 12 release of the Freeh report may have hastened the process for the slow-moving governing body for college sports.
Recent major scandals — such as improper payments to the family of Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush while he was at Southern California, and players at Ohio State trading memorabilia for cash and tattoos — have resulted in bowl bans and the loss of scholarships.
Current NCAA rules limit the so-called "death penalty" to colleges already on probation that commit another major violation. That was the case when Southern Methodist had its program suspended in the mid-1980s, the last time the punishment was imposed on a major college football program.
NCAA leaders have indicated in recent months they are willing to return to harsher penalties for the worst offences.
"This is completely different than an impermissible benefits scandal like (what) happened at SMU, or anything else we've dealt with. This is as systemic a cultural problem as it is a football problem. There have been people that said this wasn't a football scandal," Emmert told PBS recently. "It was that but much more. And we'll have to figure out exactly what the right penalties are. I don't know that past precedent makes particularly good sense in this case because it's really an unprecedented problem."
Another question is whether Penn State — and, by extension, Paterno, major college football's winningest coach — will have to vacate any victories. Paterno won 409 games for the school in his 46 seasons as head coach. USC lost a national title when it went on probation and Ohio State vacated the 2010 season, including its victory in the Sugar Bowl over Arkansas.
ACC Commissioner John Swofford said he doesn't know what the penalties will be, though many in college sports have given some thought to what they should be.
"I think a lot of us in this profession wrestle with that, to a degree, because the Penn State situation is unprecedented. I don't know of anything to compare it to," he said Sunday. "So, it's uncharted waters. A tragedy from every angle."
Kayla Weaver, a Penn State senior and member of the dance team called the Lionettes, said an NCAA death penalty would not only force the football players to transfer, but it would also force program changes for cheerleaders, dancers and band members and would hurt season ticket holders.
"It could ruin everything that we've built here," said Weaver, 21, from Franklin Lakes, N.J.
On Twitter, Akeel Lynch, a running back recruit who played high school football in western New York, wrote: "I still bleed blue and white," while quarterback Matt McGloin wrote, "The hotter the fire, the stronger the steel."
Tight end Garry Gilliam tweeted, "No matter what happens, I'm staying at Penn State."
Associated Press writers Kevin Begos in Pittsburgh and Ron Todt in Philadelphia and AP Sports Writer Joedy McCreary contributed to this report.Suggest a correction