An Icon Falls, and a President With Him

Penn State begins painful struggle to recover from scandal

Annemarie Mountz, Penn State U., Reuters

Happier days: President Graham Spanier congratulated the football coach, Joe Paterno, after his 400th win last November. A year later, both are out of a job.
November 10, 2011

Fall Saturdays, when Nittany Lions fans fill up 107,000-seat Beaver Stadium, have always defined Penn State University. But after a widely publicized sex-abuse scandal shook the football program—and the university itself—to its core, Saturdays here will never be the same.

Plenty of places love to sell their virtues, but people wear their values on their sleeves here. Tradition, pride, and honor run deep in this central Pennsylvania valley. They are part of a small-town culture that teaches people to trust their neighbors and stay loyal at any cost.

This week the Penn State family drew close as it faced allegations of the most heinous kind: The children among them weren't safe, betrayed by some of the most respected of their men.

Penn State Scandal: Read Complete Chronicle Coverage

Law-enforcement officials say at least nine young boys were sexually assaulted at the hands of a former Nittany Lions football coach over a 15-year span, while university leaders allegedly did nothing to stop it.

John S. Nichols, an emeritus professor at Penn State who chairs the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, a national sports-reform group, has long praised his employer for finding balance between athletics and academic work. The athletic department here, whose motto is "Success With Honor," has always stood out among its peers. Players graduate. Faculty oversight is strong. And in the 58 years that the NCAA has tracked major violations, Penn State has never committed a single one.

Yet three years ago, Mr. Nichols warned of the dangers for an institution that holds itself above the rest.

"Under the mantle of 'Live by the sword, die by the sword,'" he wrote in The Patriot-News of Harrisburg, "a major athletics scandal would become far more devastating for Penn State than for some peers which have become inured with repeated scandals."

As he sees it, the stage was set.

Trail of Accusations

Like all tragedies, this one has victims and villains. Jerry Sandusky, a former longtime defensive coordinator for the storied Nittany Lions' football team, was seen for many years as someone you could trust. He started a charity for the neediest of children and brought some of them to visit the mighty Penn State empire he helped build. A one-time defensive end with a wide, toothy grin, he coached numerous NFL players who, to this day, say they owe their toughness and spirit to him. (One of them, Matt Millen, an ESPN commentator, cried on the air this week talking about his alma mater.)

Mr. Sandusky has been charged with 40 counts of child molesting, including violations on Penn State's campus. He denies any wrongdoing.

Timothy M. Curley, the university's athletic director who has stepped aside, and Gary C. Schultz, its former senior vice president for finance and business, were charged with lying to a grand jury and failing to report the allegations of suspected child abuse to authorities. Both men have denied the charges.

The Pennsylvania attorney general has not filed charges against either Graham B. Spanier, the university's president who was just fired, or the legendary Coach Joe Paterno, also dismissed. But both men faced tough questions as the glare of cameras took over the University Park campus this week: How much did they know? Why didn't they tell the police? What about the children?

Soon after the news broke, on November 4, Mr. Spanier issued a statement defending his top officials but barely mentioning the victims. "Tim Curley and Gary Schultz operate at the highest levels of honesty, integrity, and compassion," Mr. Spanier said. "I am confident the record will show that these charges are groundless and that they conducted themselves professionally and appropriately." Those would be the last words he would say publicly as the university's president.

On Wednesday, following four days of administrative silence and nonstop pounding in the national spotlight—The New York Times alone sent four reporters here, while hundreds more reporters and cameramen parachuted in—the university's Board of Trustees had had enough.

After the story led the national evening news for three straight nights, something had to change. Board members called what was at least their third emergency session of the week, and when it was over, the president and coach were gone.

Unanswered Questions

It's easy to lay blame when you don't know all the answers, and there are plenty of unanswered questions here. We still don't—and may never—know the names of the victims. We still don't know why the university police department did not press charges in 1998, even though two campus police investigators heard allegations of child sex acts firsthand. Why didn't Mr. Schultz, whose responsibilities included oversight of the university police, do anything more?

One of the most graphic scenes in the grand jury's report described a graduate assistant, Michael McQueary, observing Mr. Sandusky sodomizing a 10-year-old boy. As of Thursday, Mr. McQueary was still a coach at Penn State.

It is that scene that has raised as many questions as any: Exactly what did Mr. McQueary tell Joe Paterno, the country's all-time winningest Division I football coach, about what he saw that night in the locker room? According to the grand-jury report, Mr. Paterno testified that he knew Mr. Sandusky was allegedly "fondling or doing something of a sexual nature to a young boy." Why did it take Mr. Paterno a day to tell Mr. Curley, and another week and a half for the athletic director to get back to the eyewitness?

Most important, some critics say, why didn't anyone follow up with the boy? (State investigators still don't know who he is.)

Mr. Spanier never had any indication that the incident involved inappropriate sexual activity, according to the grand-jury report.

But wasn't finding a former football coach naked with a young child enough cause for concern?

The state attorney general has said that Mr. Paterno is not a target of the continuing investigation, but in his letter of resignation, Mr. Paterno admitted: "With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more."

When asked if Mr. Spanier might face charges himself, the attorney general would not comment. The state's police commissioner had plenty to say: "Somebody has to question what I would consider the moral requirements for a human being that knows of sexual things that are taking place with a child."

A Popular President

Until this week, Mr. Spanier had enjoyed unusual support from faculty and alumni. Many people describe him as a warm, likable guy, remembering details about people's families and personal lives, bragging about faculty and administrators' work on the various high-profile national committees he served on, and, ultimately, being fiercely loyal to those closest to him.

Malcolm Moran remembers covering Penn State football games for The New York Times in the late 1990s, and watching Mr. Spanier come by the press area to kick up conversation. Mr. Moran was later hired as the university's James L. Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society, a position that allowed him to occasionally work closely with the president.

"When we'd be sitting in a meeting and talking about ideas, the depth of the conversation—it was clear the challenge for everyone working on something with Graham, the more we did, the higher the bar was raised," said Mr. Moran. "And that was just one slice of one meeting on one day. When you think of all the different ways—the different audiences, different benefactors, whoever else he got involved with­—how many other ways was a bar being raised because of his attention to details?"

But it was Mr. Spanier's apparent inattention to certain details and blind trust in people under him that may have led to his undoing. Scott Kretchmar, a former longtime faculty athletics representative here, likened the university's "tragic" response to that of a family concerned for one of its own.

"There is a greater tendency to forgive, give a second chance, protect the reputation of the family. At a very human level, we do that with our biological families," said Mr. Kretchmar, a professor of exercise and sport science. "We don't want to see anyone in the family hurt. Penn State has been a tight-knit family, and in some ways that might have hurt us in this situation."

Those who are pressing for the victims to be remembered in all this view any excuse as hollow.

"Jerry Sandusky was in the football building alone at 9:30 at night naked with a 10-year-old boy in the showers," said Donald E. Heller, a professor of education and senior scientist at Penn State's Center for the Study of Higher Education. "At a minimum, some action should have been taken, more than saying, 'Don't bring the boys onto campus anymore.'"

Closing Ranks

The $14.7-million Mildred and Louis Lasch Football Building, a modern architectural marvel that resembles a giant grand piano from aerial photos, sits a couple of blocks from Beaver Stadium on the far edge of campus.

Inside, players enjoy all the modern trappings of an elite program: 13,000 square feet of weight rooms spread over two floors, meeting rooms for all 22 playing positions, and wood-paneled locker rooms so big they are described simply as "massive" on the athletic department's Web site. Somewhere in that locker room, Mr. Sandusky reportedly assaulted a child.

The doors to the building are locked these days, apparently open only to players and staff. As on many campuses, the athletic department here is a family within a family, and has been known to close ranks. People who have worked closely with the program say officials have had serious debates in recent years about how the university handles its disciplinary process, particularly around football.

The administration's reaction to the Sandusky affair was a signal of a "deeper poison," some people told The Chronicle. None of them wanted their names used, for fear of retribution.

"While I could have never imagined the horrific acts, I clearly could have imagined an institution behaving the way it did," said one person with knowledge of athletics matters. "While there are a lot of good people, they're afraid to stand up and speak out on things."

Penn State has numerous safeguards to prevent athletics from operating apart from the university—the athletic director serves on the president's leadership council, and Mr. Spanier sometimes had daily contact with coaches and academic officials involved with the program. Still, the president had his own problems reining in the coach.

Mr. Spanier tried to oust Mr. Paterno when his last contract was up, in 2004, but the coach resisted and the president lacked the support to remove him, several people recounted. "Graham tried to bring Coach Paterno under control, but he didn't have the power to do it," said one source close to the program. "For all the rules that apply to intercollegiate athletics, there was an asterisk—except if Joe wants to do it differently."

That culture helped prevent the university from adequately responding to the allegations, believes Howard Bryant, an columnist. This week he wrote that Penn State's response revolved "not around the children who most needed the adults to be grown-ups, but around protecting the power."

Faced with a serious threat to "big football," which brings in more than $70-million a year, the university chose not to help the kids, he believes.

"Surrounded by so much bigness," Mr. Bryant wrote, "virtually everyone in a position of authority at Penn State has, thus far, seemed to come up very small."

'Joe Pa Forever'

One day, long after all the news crews head home and the noise dies down, Happy Valley will be a happy place again (optimism, after all, is another virtue in these parts). But it will be a long road.

Based on their response to the coach's dismissal, many students here still seem to define themselves in part by what happens on those few Saturdays every fall. Following his abrupt dismissal—Mr. Paterno had asked to coach out the remainder of the season, but the board made his resignation effective immediately—students poured into the streets by the thousands to express their displeasure. They blew horns, threw toilet paper over the crowd, and chanted, "We want Joe! We want Joe!" One sign read, "Joe Pa forever."

Crisis-communications experts say Penn State may never live down the legacy of the Sandusky child-sex scandal. They believe the university will have many tough days ahead.

"I don't think the worst is behind them," says Teresa Valerio Parrot, a crisis consultant who worked at the University of Colorado system in the early 2000s when football players and recruits there faced accusations of raping women. "Having been through something like this, I wouldn't be surprised to see a couple more months of news blindsiding them and additional details coming out."

It could be years before the legal case runs its course. In the meantime, the university needs to focus on the messages it presents to the world and figure out the right strategies to get those messages across, says John F. Burness, a visiting professor of public policy at Duke University, who was its chief spokesman during the 2006 lacrosse scandal.

"While Penn State is probably best known for its football program and iconic coach, it has a lot of academic quality across the board," he said. "In the long run, that won't be changed at all, and will very much help them get out of the current chasm they're in."

For its part, the board acted swiftly to take back its university. It announced the formation of an investigative committee to get to the bottom of the abuse allegations. At the news conference announcing Mr. Spanier's and Mr. Paterno's dismissals, the board's vice chairman, John P. Surma, was asked what cultural changes the university might need to make to set it on the right path.

"The culture on the whole is exemplary," said Mr. Surma, flanked by 23 fellow trustees with stern faces. "We have a good culture, but to the extent we could improve it in some areas, we will put our full energy into it."

Jack Stripling and Sara Hebel contributed to this article.