On November 5, 2011, Penn State’s former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was arrested on forty criminal counts, including the sexual assault of eight boys over a fifteen-year period, one of them in the showers of Penn State’s football building.
That put in motion a series of events that few could have imagined: it exposed the worst scandal in the history of modern sports; it led to the midseason firing of the iconic Joe Paterno; it prompted the hiring of little-known New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien; it resulted in Penn State’s commissioning the Freeh Report, which concluded university leaders knew enough about what Sandusky had done, but cared more about protecting the university’s image than his young victims; and it surely accelerated Paterno’s decline and death – all within three months of Sandusky’s arrest.
But Penn State’s troubles were far from over.
Most of the players didn’t know who Sandusky was, but their reactions were pretty swift. “They used to hang people at the Centre County Courthouse,” senior linebacker Mike Mauti told me, “and frankly, I would have been okay with that. Hell, give us the rope, and we’ll do it for you.”
But few Penn State insiders thought the NCAA would punish the football program for Sandusky’s sins, and they had precedent on their side. NCAA officials usually steered clear of the most serious matters, including rape and murder, leaving them for the appropriate legal authorities, while the NCAA ruled on whether players are allowed to put cream cheese or jam on their breakfast bagel. (They are not.) Letting the NCAA rule on a child rapist is as unwise as putting a meter reader in charge of a serial murder. They were in way over their heads – and they proved it.
At 10 a.m. Monday morning, July 23, 2012, Penn State’s football players gathered in their lounge to watch NCAA president Mark Emmert lay out a series of penalties. One erased a wide swath of Penn State’s rich history, vacating all victories from 1998 through 2011 — thereby dropping Paterno from the perch of his profession down to fifth. The sanctions also threatened Penn State’s future: a $60 million fine, a four-year postseason ban, and a drastic reduction in scholarships, from 85 to 65.
Emmert declared Penn State’s penalties might be considered “greater than any other seen in NCAA history.”
The public focused on the bowl ban, but Coach Bill O’Brien was far more worried about another clause, which allowed Penn State players to transfer immediately, without penalty, to any school they liked, and coaches from other schools to recruit them all over again. That could amount a death sentence, by slow poisoning. Could Penn State’s program survive?
O’Brien spoke immediately to his shell-shocked squad.
“We’re not here to understand the rules,” he told them. “We’re here to follow them. It’s my obligation to tell you that you are free to go anywhere you want, with no penalties. However, if you stay, I promise you, you will never forget it… and you will still get a great education.’ ”
At Penn State, that promise is not hollow. Joe Paterno surely had his blind spots, but how to run a clean program was not one of them. Even the Starbuck baristas in town know they can’t give a Penn State player so much as a free latte.
Within 24 hours, a hundred coaches from around the country converged on the parking lot of Penn State’s football building in the hopes of luring their players away. Some of those coaches, the players knew from being recruited the first time, would offer the players money, women and more.
Would O’Brien’s simple offer be enough to keep his players in State College?
“Were we in danger of a complete collapse?” assistant coach Larry Johnson, Sr., wondered aloud. “No question. The threat was as real as it could be.”
The NCAA sanctions were putting the lie to the NCAA’s own propaganda, which officially discouraged transfers because “student-athletes” are supposed to pick their schools for the education, not the athletic opportunities. But there Emmert was, inviting Penn State’s student-athletes to jettison the university that graduated 91% of its student-athletes – a big reason many of them chose Penn State in the first place – to transfer to programs that couldn’t come close to that rate.
Not only did it suddenly fall to every Penn State player who stayed to protect their storied program from disintegrating, they could only do so by upholding the very values the NCAA itself could apparently no longer proclaim with a straight face.
Amazingly, almost all of the players stayed – but they were rewarded with two straight losses, forcing them to save the season. Again, they rallied, finishing with a surprising 8-4 record, capped by an overtime victory over Wisconsin, the eventual Big Ten champions.
They had survived the sanctions, and the start to their season.
Emmert was probably as surprised as anyone. This week, the NCAA announced they were reducing Penn State’s penalties, restoring scholarships faster than originally planned – though, I suspect, for the wrong reasons.
Penn State’s leadership still seems lost. The 32-member board of trustees – one of the most dysfunctional boards in higher education, seemingly by design – hired one of their own, a former trustee whose business had gone bankrupt, to run the athletic department with no prior experience. How Sandusky was able to get away with his heinous crimes for so long, they still haven’t determined. The countless court cases to come will likely have something to say about that.
But the players’ stoic response to the sanctions turned the tide of public opinion – and that’s what turns the NCAA around. It is an organization without any guiding principles, save one: Do whatever is best for the NCAA, at that moment. That its decision also happens to be what’s best for Penn State’s student-athletes is merely a coincidence.
At the end of Penn State’s surprising season, one assistant coach told me, he’d always remember that their kids knew how to handle the situation better than most of the adults.
What was true ten months ago is just as true today. Important lessons were learned – about honesty, resilience and responsibility – just not by the people who needed to learn them.
About the writer: Ann Arbor resident John U. Bacon is the author of the national bestsellers “Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,” “Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at johnubacon.com.
The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our publication of columnists like John U. Bacon. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!