Why is it so crucial to handle a crisis properly? Because if you don’t, a crisis is a never-ending chafe on your reputation. It’s the cranky uncle who keeps embarrassing everyone at the dinner table. Or the nagging cold that you just can’t shake.
Ask the Penn State board of trustees — quickly, before the alumni rise up and vote them all out of office. Any crisis manager who can’t take her eyes off the rambling wreck of Penn State PR in the last four months could predict the backlash that again slapped the university’s leaders Thursday.
The trustees fired football coach Joe Paterno, the heart and soul of Penn State for more than 50 years, in a late-night phone call. Sue Paterno was so furious about her husband’s treatment she called them back right after and unloaded. On Sunday, Joe died of cancer.
No one — the Paterno family foremost — believes the victims of former coach Jerry Sandusky‘s alleged crimes should be ignored, or ever forgotten. But there is growing fervor, expressed repeatedly Thursday, that Joe Paterno deserved better.
People, most of them uninformed of the facts, can and will argue whether he was aggressive enough in following up on the allegations he heard. But he did nothing wrong legally; Sandusky was no longer his responsibility; and Paterno delivered the information to the two men who were responsible for Sandusky.
Could Paterno have done more? Perhaps. Did he deserve a phone call firing at 10 p.m. with several games still to be played? You decide. Was it a PR blunder of unique proportions? Yes. As we can reasonably assume now, he was likely suffering from cancer at the time, and this would have been his final season as coach.
Even if the board were determined to fire him, it could have waited until morning, set up a dignified meeting and discussed it with a man who gave his heart, his soul, his intellect and his millions back to Penn State.
The trustees thought they were acting decisively after months of perceived inaction. They only compounded their ineffectiveness. No doubt there were jealousies on that board, egos who were tired of the JoePa sainthood and sanctity. And they will pay for their decision, most likely with their replacement at the hands of an enraged alumni — composed of graduates who benefitted from and loved who Paterno was and what he did for them.
Joe Paterno may have only coached football players and teams in the strictest sense, but he touched hundreds of thousands of lives by the way he lived his. To this day, he’s a father figure to legions of grandfathers, fathers, grandmothers, and mothers, all of whom turn at times to the values he taught in raising their own daughters and sons. His lessons, his standards of behavior contrast with the smarmy ways of too many top college football programs. For that alone he deserved better.
It was said yesterday that Joe didn’t recruit the football players he enticed to Penn State, he recruited their mothers and fathers. Because he stood for what was right.
Too bad the trustees missed those lessons Joe taught.