STATE COLLEGE — In the ugly aftermath of Jerry Sandusky’s Nov. 5, 2011, arrest on child sex-abuse charges, gloomy forecasts on the future of Penn State sports rolled into this suddenly traumatized college town as fast as the satellite trucks.
Months before the NCAA issued stiff sanctions and a $60 million fine against the university, pundits already were predicting the unprecedented scandal would be “devastating”, even “ruinous” for an athletic department whose 30 other sports were dependent on a now seriously compromised football program.
“It might not have been a death penalty but we were in the ICU,” recalled Dave Joyner, who was appointed acting athletic director that Nov. 16.
Now six years later, despite ongoing friction between administrators and alumni, despite continuing suspicion from beyond Happy Valley, despite a negative narrative that one vocal defender sadly notes “has been impossible to reverse”, Penn State sports have never been healthier.
In four of the last five years, PSU has finished among the top 10 Division I schools in the Learfield Cup, a ranking of overall sports success. Since that terrible autumn, Nittany Lions athletes have captured 31 NCAA titles, (22 individual, 9 team) and 36 Big 10 conference or tournament championships. The seven league titles Penn State teams won in 2016-17 surpassed all its Big 10 rivals.
The signature football team has rebounded and prospered. James Franklin’s Lions have won 17 of their last 20 games. The financial engine of the department, football made a $40 million profit in 2016 and attracted contributions of $39 million to the Nittany Lions Club.
Such success has allowed Penn State to launch fund-raising efforts for a planned athletic building boom. As facilities are built, renovated or enhanced over the next 20 years, the price tag could top $500 million.
So what happened? How, after being tainted by one of tawdriest episodes in collegiate sports history, did Penn State manage to win games, raise money and recruit quality athletes, in some cases better than before?
“Not only didn’t we lose any kids, recruiting got better,” said Erica Walsh Dambach, the coach of a women’s soccer team that was the NCAA tournament runner-up in 2012 and its champion in 2015. “I think the parents really understood that because of what happened and all the changes that resulted, this was going to be the model athletic program.”
Athletic culture reboot: That reboot of a once-shadowy athletic culture by imposing new standards and scrutiny was just one of several factors that helped PSU sports prosper in a perilous environment.
Among the other key moves made in the days and weeks following Sandusky’s arrest were the hiring of Bill O’Brien as football coach; the formation of a large and vocal alumni group that helped fight the NCAA sanctions and public perceptions; Joyner’s successful efforts to reassure wary donors and sponsors; and a spiritual union between football and the lesser sports.
“A lesser institution might have imploded,” said Joe Battista, the former men’s hockey coach and onetime Nittany Lions Club executive director. “The crisis brought out the best parts of a strong history and foundation. Combine that with necessary changes to modernize facilities, update policies and procedures, and add key administrative and support staff and it showed a lot of critics PSU was on a more solid footing than many thought.”
Foundation created by Paterno: Ironically, the one thing coaches and administrators pointed to most often when discussing reasons for this sports miracle was the foundation created by Joe Paterno, the man some critics still blame for creating a football-first environment in which Sandusky’s crimes were ignored or missed, the man whose legacy administrators have sometimes seemed hell-bent on erasing.
According to them, the “Success With Honor” values publicly espoused for decades by Paterno, who died shortly after his 2011 firing, gave Penn State something to latch onto in the crisis, no matter how hollow it all sounded elsewhere.
When Sandy Barbour, then California’s AD, learned of the scandal, “I thought it’s going to be a challenge for that institution and community to bounce back.”
But by the time she replaced Joyner in 2015, a successful transition was already underway.
“It was the beliefs and values, the people and passion,” said Barbour. “I don’t know a lot of communities that could have done what Penn State has done.”
For much of outside world, Sandusky scandal still defines PSU: Still, for all the high-sounding rhetoric about “student-athletes” and “academics-first” from Penn Staters, it’s the Sandusky affair that continues to define the school for much of the outside world.
“When the trustees knee-jerked and prematurely fired Paterno, they set a narrative in place that has been impossible to reverse, no matter how many facts have come out in the last six years,” said Maribeth Schmidt, a spokesperson for the alumni group, Penn Staters For Responsible Stewardship.
The endurance of that narrative was demonstrated in a recent Cleveland Plain-Dealer column by Bill Livingston, who once covered Penn State for the Inquirer.
“In the grotesquely misnamed Happy Valley,” Livingston wrote before the Nittany Lions Oct. 28 loss at Ohio State, “isolation bred secrecy; insularity created Paterno’s cult of personality; and perverted priorities protected the football program’s sexual predator, former top aide Jerry Sandusky, but not the boys he raped.”
Donations rebound sharply: Whatever permitted PSU athletics to overcome the sordid episode, most agree it wouldn’t have happened if Nittany Lions Club donations, which initially dropped by 20 percent, hadn’t rebounded sharply. That was why one of Joyner’s first major initiatives as AD was a “Reassurance Tour” throughout the state.
“Donors were nervous,” explained Joyner, a medical doctor who left his alma mater in 2015 to become executive director of the Florida’s Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine. “And a few sponsors backed out or decreased spending. … We had to do whatever we could to maintain that base because that’s part of keeping us alive.”
Trying to limit panic on the tour, Joyner compared what was happening at Penn State to the Navy’s Tailhook scandal, when dozens of Naval officers were accused of sexual assaults during a 1991 Las Vegas gathering.
“What happened there was horrible, but it didn’t mean the Navy or their values were bad. It meant Tailhook was bad. You didn’t see Naval officers taking their uniforms off and burning them. What you saw was the Navy no longer tolerating what happened and changing things so it would never happen again,” Joyner said. “You deplore the bad things that happened, but you stand proud.”
Not just a football issue: The difficulties imposed on the football team were well-documented, as were the steps then-coach O’Brien and some veteran players took to counter them. But the rest of Penn State athletics, while not directly linked to the crimes, had similar concerns, similar hurdles.
“It was surreal,” said Dambach, “to go home at night and watch what the nation was saying about a place we loved so much. They were talking about a football program we held in such high regard. We had built our programs around [Paterno’s] beliefs.”
Coaches began to worry about recruiting, attendance, morale. Would Penn State athletics be forever marred?
“That Friday [Nov. 11] we played the first game on campus since news broke,” said Dambach. “The stands were packed with students wanting to support us. That’s when I felt we’d be OK.”
That feeling was confirmed for Dambach a day later when Penn State football made its post-scandal debut against Nebraska.
“We had a big-time recruit fly in with her family that day for a visit,” she recalled. “The town and the community were more electric than ever. I remember her and her parents’ reaction after walking around a while was, `I’m not sure what we expected when we flew out here, but this blew us away.’ ”
O'Brien a key hire: When Joyner, one of the trustees who had agreed to Paterno’s removal a week earlier, became AD, his priority was finding a football coach. Though many assumed no “name” would take the job, O’Brien, a highly regarded New England Patriots assistant, was hired on Dec.7, 2011.
“Bill O’Brien had a lot to do with helping stimulate confidence levels,” said Joyner. “Not long after he was hired. he came to one of our monthly coaches meetings. And he coined the phrase ‘One Team’ to suggest they were all in this together.”
That new paradigm, which encouraged all coaches and athletes to support each other, was an important step forward for an unsteady department, coaches said.
“O’Brien came in and led the way,” said Dambach. “We began to realize we were all in this together. He said we needed to get our student-athletes out and attend each other’s games. I felt a shift in coaching support. We had an arm around each other.”
Department reformed: Gradually, a department that had grown hidebound during Paterno’s long tenure was reformed. Hiring policies and operating procedures were altered to insure openness and eliminate the secrecy that aided Sandusky.
Budgets were scrutinized. Athletics borrowed $48 million from the university to pay the NCAA penalty but managed to stay in the black each subsequent year.
“Sometimes we weren’t in the black by much, but we were always there,” Joyner said.
To insure compliance, the NCAA, as part of its August 2012 sanctions, demanded an integrity overseer be appointed. That helped ease the fears of wary faculty members and parents of recruits.
“We had to reassure the faculty senate and our compliance people that we were going to pay attention to the right things,” said Joyner. “The things that were really good, and there were many, we continued. We didn’t want to just blow things up.”
Paterno supporters: Meanwhile, in the days after Sandusky’s arrest, Maribeth Schmidt was one of many graduates angered at the trustees, whom they believed scapegoated Paterno and football.
When she sought answers on social media, she found like-minded alums.
“I started to get messages from alumni,” Schmidt said. “One emailer suggested we join this small, closed Facebook group that at the time was called `We Intend to Vote Out the Penn State Board of Trustees.’
“What I found were people putting words to my emotions. Why was this thing moving so quickly and out of control? I suggested we let other alums know. We thought we could get a big group together.”
In January 2012, Schmidt sent out a press release about the new organization and “my phone blew up.”
So did group membership, expanding from 20 to more than 50,000 today. Now called Penn Staters For Responsible Stewardship, the often combative organization railed against the NCAA sanctions, which eventually were reduced.
After nine of the group’s candidates were elected, the trustees expanded the board from 30 to 35 members.
“They made a majority harder for us to reach,” Schmidt said.
The group’s unwavering determination to restore Paterno’s reputation and remove the taint from his program and their school quickly put it at odds with those — especially in administration — who wanted to bury the scandal as quickly as possible. To some extent, the battle continues.
Walking a tightrope: Barbour admitted walking that tightrope between factions was her biggest challenge on replacing Joyner.
“How during a really difficult time do you make a lot of changes in what had been a positive culture?” she said. “How to you maintain and protect that?”
It wasn’t until after the harsh sanctions were imposed that Joyner realized Penn State athletics were going to be fine.
“A crisis like that can make you stronger or weaker,” Joyner said. “Right after the sanctions we had a meeting and [quarterback] Matt McGloin said, `Well, let’s get going because the hotter the fire, the stronger the steel.’
“I’ll never forget that. If you have the right ingredients, you’ll make a great sword. If not, it all melts.”
Penn State athletics since the Sandusky scandal
From Fall 2011-Spring 2017:
►Nine NCAA championships in five sports — three NCAA titles in 2013-14 most since 1999-2000. Penn State’s nine NCAA titles since 2011-12 leads all Big Ten institutions (Ohio State has eight).
►36 Big Ten championships or tournament titles in 14 sports. A school-record eight Big Ten championships in 2012-13; matched in 2013-14. Seven Big Ten Championships in seven different sports in 2016-17 — most of any conference school. School record 11 conference titles in 2012-13. Penn State’s 36 Big Ten titles since 2011-12 is No. 2 among Big Ten institutions (Michigan has 40). 49 conference championships or tournament titles in 17 sports.
►Four NACDA Learfield Directors’ Cup Top 10 finishes in the past five years. No. 8 in 2016-17.
►22 NCAA individual national champions.