Penn State football program's fate unknown
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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- In the face of potentially severe and unprecedented NCAA sanctions, Penn State University president Rodney Erickson says he has not yet considered suspending the school's storied football program in response to the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
Still, Mr. Erickson acknowledged that "some sort of action" is expected from the athletic association, which has been conducting its own review of the university's missteps in responding to the allegations against Mr. Sandusky.
"They certainly have the authority to make major recommendations as well as impose major sanctions," he said of NCAA officials.
Mr. Erickson addressed pressures from the NCAA, the controversy surrounding how to portray coach Joe Paterno's legacy and other hurdles facing the university during a 20-minute interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Tuesday afternoon.
The interview was part of a packed schedule of meetings with reporters as the university attempts to rebuild its public image following last week's devastating report.
That document, assembled by former FBI director Louis Freeh, concluded that Penn State officials concealed accusations that former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky sexually abused boys, doing so to avoid negative publicity.
Mr. Paterno was implicated along with former president Graham Spanier, retired university vice president Gary Schultz and former athletic director Tim Curley, as key figures in the decisions to hide Mr. Sandusky's actions from the public.
In the interview, Mr. Erickson, who was promoted from his role as provost in the days after Mr. Sandusky's November arrest, reiterated his main message from last week: The university is seeking to rebalance athletics and academics through a series of immediate and long-term steps.
Some of the Freeh report's recommendations have begun to be implemented, including searching for a compliance officer to ensure the university is following Clery Act guidelines for reporting crimes on campus. A set of candidates for that role are expected to be finalized within days.
Other steps will begin in the coming days, such as crafting a response to the NCAA's November letter seeking information from Penn State officials.
While there are few, if any, past examples of the NCAA getting involved in a similar matter, the athletic association's president, Mark Emmert, said in an interview earlier this week that issuing the so-called "death penalty" to the football program was not out of the question.
Asked if he had considered deciding as a university to shut down the football program for a season, Mr. Erickson replied: "I haven't at this point in time. We would have to see what possible sanctions might be levied by the NCAA."
He added that the university will be working with NCAA officials on an appropriate response and alerting them to the policy changes already enacted.
"It would have major consequences, not just for football but for the entire athletic program," Mr. Erickson said of a potential program suspension.
A decision on whether the seven-foot-high bronze statue honoring Mr. Paterno should be removed from its spot next to Beaver Stadium is coming within seven to 10 days, he said.
Cries have grown louder since the Freeh report's release to remove the statue, which was erected in 2001 after the longtime coach's 324th win.
While the plane above campus Tuesday carried a banner urging the monument's removal, visitors posing for pictures there said demolishing it would be shortsighted.
Mr. Erickson said he is consulting with advisers on the President's Council and "key members" of the board of trustees as to what type of association the university should have with Mr. Paterno's name, which also is emblazoned on the campus library.
As for the school's associations with Mr. Spanier, who was not indicted and remains on sabbatical, or Mr. Curley, who awaits trial on perjury charges, those remain open questions.
"We'll continue to review those relationships on an ongoing basis," he said. "At the appropriate time, we'll take whatever actions are the right actions to take."
Much of the needed changes boil down to "generally bringing intercollegiate athletics into much closer relationships and alignment with other units and functions of the university," Mr. Erickson said.
He listed a series of structural changes governing how coaches and the athletic department are supervised, aiming to create clearer lines of authority. Human-resources functions will be centralized, and among longer-term goals, the administration is seeking to create a pattern of openness in its decision-making.
"We're going to look at all levels within the university, and commit ourselves to doing everything we can to make sure something like this never happens again at Penn State," he said.
When football Saturdays return to Happy Valley on Sept. 1, Mr. Erickson said he expects the alumni support that he's received in emails and messages to be visible, although "certainly imbued with greater humility."
"While some very bad things happened, there's still that sense that as an education institution, we've changed people's lives for the better," he said.
First Published July 18, 2012 12:00 am