Penn State University's board of trustees lent president Rodney Erickson strong support Sunday in his agreement to unprecedented NCAA penalties imposed in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal, though its indignation at the association's quest for "blood" through the harsh football sanctions came through loudly.
Meeting by telephone conference call in a special session, many of the 30 trustees acknowledged Mr. Erickson had no choice but to sign a consent decree that includes a $60 million fine, sharp cuts in football scholarships, a four-year ban on bowl appearances and forfeiture of victories dating to 1998.
"You did the best you could against a foe looking for blood," trustee Paul Silvis said of the need to avoid the still-harsher step of suspending the football program entirely, known as a "death penalty."
Speaking by phone, Mr. Erickson, who is also a trustee, described a frantic mid-July week between issuance of the university-contracted Freeh report and announcement of the NCAA penalties, which were based to a large degree on that highly critical report.
He said he was told by NCAA president Mark Emmert that a majority of the association's board "wanted blood and to shut down the Penn State football program for multiple years." Mr. Erickson said it became clear during the week of July 16, as he and a special consultant hired by the school both dealt with the NCAA, that the association was not interested in negotiating the terms of a penalty.
"It was a take-it-or-leave it proposition," he told the trustees listening in during the one-hour, 45-minute discussion, which the public could also monitor by phone or by Penn State's website. Mr. Erickson listed numerous reasons he did not want to risk suspension of the football program by challenging the strong sanctions. Among those would be the potential impact on the fall economy if Beaver Stadium were left empty while the school fought the NCAA in court.
"I felt it was the better of two crushing alternatives, and the most difficult decision I've ever had to make, and I stand by that decision today," said the president, who is serving on a short-term basis in the wake of the forced resignation of longtime president Graham Spanier because of his role in the Sandusky scandal.
Mr. Erickson was almost unanimously praised by the trustees. They did not, however, take a vote to ratify the consent decree, which was the original intent of the unusual weekend session called by board chairwoman Karen Peetz.
Ms. Peetz announced at the start of the phone call that the plan for a vote had been dropped because of concerns that insufficient written notice had been provided to trustees to make any actions binding.
She added, however, that university attorneys had determined no ratification was needed because Mr. Erickson carried full authority to handle decisions regarding the NCAA.
Responding to her plea for unity, numerous trustees -- Gov. Tom Corbett among them -- chimed in in support of Mr. Erickson's actions.
"He was faced with impossible alternatives," said Samuel Hayes Jr., a former Pennsylvania House speaker. "There was not some magical, easy way through this thicket."
While a couple of trustees maintained a position that Penn State should not have capitulated to the NCAA, particularly without the full board's consent, they refrained from any criticism of Mr. Erickson's leadership.
Ms. Peetz also announced that Ryan J. McCombie, a trustee who last week signaled his intent to file a legal appeal of the NCAA sanctions, had circulated an email saying "he has instructed his lawyer to refrain from taking any further legal action." Mr. McCombie later said he has suspended his appeal temporarily but intends to challenge the NCAA sanctions.
Both Mr. Erickson and Gene Marsh, the Tuscaloosa, Ala.-based special counsel hired by the university last month to deal with the NCAA because of experience as chairman of its infractions committee, described in detail their uphill struggle to have the association's board apply lesser penalties.
The NCAA's strong reaction closely followed release of the Freeh report, which described a culture in which university officials' devotion to the football program led them to put its interests ahead of those of children abused for years by former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. Mr. Sandusky was convicted of multiple sexual assaults, and two other university officials face trial for their handling of allegations against him.
Mr. Marsh, describing a series of informal discussions with NCAA staff after details of the Freeh investigation came out, said he was told that key officials felt the death penalty should be imposed because of "the worst case of loss of institutional control they had ever seen."
"It was not going to be only the death penalty" if Penn State declined the consent decree, Mr. Marsh said. "The consideration was the death penalty with additional violations that would hinder the competitive level of the program when it came back to life. That's the stark choice the university faced."
No comment was available Sunday evening from the NCAA on his and Mr. Erickson's similar assertions, but in an interview publicized last month on espn.com, the chairman of the NCAA's executive committee denied the association's leadership ever threatened Penn State with the loss of football if it failed to accept the other sanctions.
On Sunday, however, Mr. Erickson cited that prospect -- losing football for multiple years -- as the reason he felt the need to accept the consent decree. He said he worried that if the program was suspended, there would have been no football revenue to support other sports; football facilities and staff would have had to have been retained without income; Penn State might have been expelled from the Big 10 Conference for fighting the NCAA; and any challenge to the NCAA could have sent the world the message "that Penn State is mainly about football."
Ms. Peetz said the university has several times since mid-July requested that the NCAA show an openness to reconsidering the penalties if Penn States shows the full compliance being sought, including changes in culture recommended in the Freeh report. It has been rebuffed by the NCAA each time, including by the association's executive committee in a vote Sunday, she said.
"There has never been time off for good behavior -- that is a concept that does not exist," explained Mr. Marsh, a lawyer and former chairman of the NCAA's infractions committee.
Ms. Peetz said that, nonetheless, "We intend and expect that our performance will be so exemplary that in a few years we will be in a position to request again that the NCAA reconsider whether ongoing nonfinancial sanctions continue to be appropriate."
She and other trustees sounded a chorus of calls that it's now time for the university to show unity while focusing on its academic mission and improving a tarnished image.
"There are a lot of things here we're very disappointed about, but we must move forward for the greater good of Penn State University," said trustee Joel Myers, one of those who had questioned the validity of the consent decree while calling the NCAA's penalties and process unfair and excessive.
Gary Rotstein: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1255. First Published August 13, 2012 4:00 AM