Penn State football program played and lost by its own rules
July 13, 2012 12:00 PM
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press file
Penn State President Graham Spanier, Athletic Director Tim Curley and late head football coach Joe Paterno.
AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
A student is reflected in the window of the Mildred and Louis Lasch Football Building on Penn State's main campus in State College.
Former FBI director Louis Freeh speaks during a news conference, Thursday in Philadelphia.
By Mark Dent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- For years it has been the perception of many that Penn State University's president, the board of trustees and other administrators ruled their part of the university but the powerhouse college football team, which has made as much as $50 million in annual profits, was allowed to operate under its own governance.
The Freeh report, the product of an investigation undertaken because of the Jerry Sandusky sex crimes scandal and made public Thursday, provided documentation of that notion, concluding that Penn State's athletic department was a closed community, an "island" separate from the university where employees followed their own rules. Many employees of the football program had longstanding Penn State ties, and they followed the law which had been built up around legendary coach Joe Paterno. Even the janitors followed.
A janitor witnessed Jerry Sandusky with a boy in the showers at the Lasch Building in 2000. The Freeh report noted that one of them told another not to report the sexual assault because it "would have been like going against the president of the United States."
"What I found to be extremely telling ... is the janitors," said Louis Freeh, the former FBI director who directed the investigation at the behest of university trustees. "The janitors, that's the tone on the bottom. These are the employees of Penn State who clean and maintain locker rooms in the Lasch Building where the young boys are being raped. They witnessed probably the most horrific rape that's described. And what do they do? They panic.
"They said we can't report this because we'll get fired. They knew who Sandusky was. One of the janitors watched him growing up as the defensive coach. They were afraid to take on the football program. They said the university would circle around it. ... If that's the culture on the bottom, then God help the culture on top."
Some of the major revelations listed in the Freeh report, aside from the extent to which Mr. Paterno, former president Graham Spanier, former athletic director Tim Curley and former vice president Gary Schultz covered up Mr. Sandusky's crimes, involved the regulation and power of the athletic department, primarily the football team. Mr. Freeh's team wrote that the football program opted out of or did not participate in several university programs, notably training for the federal Clery Act. The Clery Act requires the public reporting of campus crimes.
Overall, Mr. Freeh's team described a culture of reverence for the football program "ingrained at all levels of the campus community." The program revered by the masses was run by men the Freeh report described as neglectful of the well-being of young people.
"Some coaches, administrators and football program staff members ignored the red flags of Sandusky's behaviors and no one warned the public about him," the report stated.
Mr. Freeh's team listed the insularity of the athletic department as a problem. The football staff experienced little or no turnover and primarily comprised graduates of Mr. Paterno's program.
Similar examples exist throughout college athletics. The North Carolina basketball team has always searched for coaching candidates that are part of its "family." Former Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez was often criticized for not being a Michigan product. But Penn State was an extreme of that rule.
The 2011 staff featured nine assistant coaches. Five had played at Penn State, and another had earned his master's degree there. All nine had spent at least eight years on the staff, and seven had been there 11 years or more.
Mr. Curley, as athletic director, was tasked with providing oversight for the football program as well as the university's other athletic programs. As a child, he parked cars and sold programs at Penn State games. He played football for Mr. Paterno, who was head coach of the program from 1966 until his firing last November.
These allegiances allowed Mr. Paterno to wield unchallenged power. The report quoted a senior Penn State official who described Mr. Curley as Mr. Paterno's "errand boy."
"The question is whether there were particular aspects about the football program that allowed these things to continue on," President Rodney Erickson said during a board of trustees' news conference Thursday. "We will certainly look at that."
The Freeh group recommended the athletics department delineate lines of authority more accurately, provide better resources for a compliance staff and conduct a national search for coaches, among other suggestions.
The university already has acted on one of these recommendations by overhauling the football staff. In January, Bill O'Brien, who had no ties to Penn State, was hired as head coach. Only two members from Mr. Paterno's previous staff, Larry Johnson and Ron Vanderlinden, were retained. None of the newly hired assistants have Penn State ties, though Dave Joyner, the acting athletic director, played offensive line for Penn State as part of Mr. Paterno's first recruiting class. Mr. Joyner and Mr. O'Brien released statements stressing the need to emerge stronger by learning from the problems of the past.
"The report concludes that individuals entrusted to positions of authority shunned the basic responsibility to protect children, and innocent children suffered as a result," Mr. Joyner said. "Moving forward, we must do everything within our capacity to restore trust in Penn State, and the athletic department will play a central and leading role in that process."
Nobody said exactly what moving forward means or what the university still planned to investigate. Looming is the possibility of NCAA sanctions against the football program. Mr. Erickson said the board of trustees would continue to examine what it needed to do regarding the football program, making sure to stress the sport's significance in Happy Valley.
"Football," Mr. Erickson said, "has been an important part of the university."