Patrick Kraft hire brings new era to Penn State athletics, and maybe some unity

DONNIE COLLINS
The (Wilkes-Barre) Citizens' Voice (TNS)
FILE - This is a Dec. 6, 2016, file photo showing Temple University Director of Athletics Patrick Kraft speaking during a news conference in Philadelphia. Boston College hired Temple athletic director Patrick Kraft on Wednesday, June 3, 2020, to fill the same role at the Atlantic Coast Conference school. Kraft replaces Martin Jarmond, who left BC last month after a short stint to become athletic director at UCLA. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

Within the first three minutes of Friday's news conference introducing Patrick Kraft as Penn State's athletic director, university president-elect Neeli Bendapudi uttered the phrase "success with honor" and the word "Paterno."

Granted, Bendapudi used the former Penn State football coach's name as a welcome of sorts to Jay Paterno, the Board of Trustees member and Joe's son, who was in attendance. But, let's be real: That's not a name that has been uttered much by those in positions of power at Penn State for a decade.

That should be taken as a sign of changing times in Happy Valley.

Kraft got his chance to endear himself to the Nittany Lions faithful Friday, but in a way, so did Bendapudi, who doesn't take over as university president for another nine days. But Kraft's hiring stood as her first official act as president. She conducted the search. The top candidate was one she knew better than anybody at Penn State. Clearly, she was proud of the result.

Bendapudi and Kraft shared the stage in a way few in their positions at this university have. Bendapudi detailed the search process thoroughly, with somewhat painstaking precision. An emotional Kraft described his passion for the job and his respect for Penn State with, gasp, personal introspections and stories of real-life experiences.

Just not something you'd hear past university presidents and athletic directors do. Not that they weren't largely good, well-meaning people who also loved their work. But they were much more careful, too, worried about the power of words and the responsibility of what missions and expectations morph into when they are grabbed by the public.

Which is why, when you hear words like "success with honor" and "Paterno" mentioned as often as they were Friday, by two people setting the tone for Penn State athletics, you know this is not done haphazardly, not approached without strategy.

It always comes back to football: Talk about athletics at Penn State always comes back to what's best for the football program. Because Penn State doesn't have 31 intercollegiate athletics programs — most of which compete in a powerhouse conference like the Big Ten, and a slew that compete for or outright win national championships on a yearly basis — if the football program isn't succeeding on the field and making gobs of money.

Neither Bendapudi or Kraft shied away from the role Kraft is going to play in raising funds for athletics, and how important that is in the ever-changing landscape of college athletics. But it's also not particularly surprising.

Last month, head football coach James Franklin called the search for AD Sandy Barbour's replacement "critical," and it's not a secret Franklin and many within athletics thought Penn State needed a fresh approach to athletics' role in the new era of name, image and likeness laws and an unashamed financial arms race. Division I athletics won't look in five years anything like they did five years ago. Penn State either ponies up to play with the big boys, recruit with them, train with them...or it becomes an also-ran.

Charisma and vision: There's no doubt, Kraft has the charisma and the vision, the magnetism and know-how, to rebuild that financial powerhouse from the first couple stories skyward. But it's also clear Penn State isn't getting close to where it can get from a fundraising perspective, building support from its most important donors, without nods like this to Joe Paterno and a vision of athletics' relationship with academics that potential donors have long believed in and never lessened their grip on. Even through the dark times.

Bendapudi and Kraft mentioned "success with honor" — the three-word summation of Paterno's stated ideals for more than four decades — and not just how important it was to Paterno, but how important it is to the program. The ideals probably never changed, but few have dared speak the words because of who uttered them and how he lost his job in 2011, simmering in the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal.

A Paterno story: Kraft even regaled the press with a story about a trip to play Penn State in 1999, when the Indiana Hoosiers' plane got stuck on the tarmac at the State College airport, meaning players and coaches had to spend the night sleeping on chairs in conference rooms at the athletic department offices. At 6 a.m. Sunday morning, just before the Hoosiers departed, Paterno arrived and spoke to them, apologizing that they were inconvenienced.

"My teammates and I still talk about that moment," Kraft said.

"Every time you played Penn State, you didn't know if it was the last time you were going to meet Joe Paterno. The game's over, and no matter how upset we were that we lost, there was a line to shake Joe's hand. I was one of those people. I called my dad and said, 'I met Joe Paterno.' "

Value of unity: Now, Patrick Kraft is back at the school Paterno called home, trying to take the post-JoePa rebuild into new territory. If Friday was any indication, Bendapudi and Kraft may not be the people who bring Paterno's name back into the daily conversation with Penn State athletics. But it seems like they know the value of unity within the athletic department, and that they probably can't get to that coveted point without bringing two sides back together.