Character helps rebuild Penn State’s reputation from crisis’ ashes

I did not graduate from Penn State, but I love a woman who did and who loves the place, and so I do too. I’ve now been there a dozen times or so and it’s very special. But it’s been a rough year.

Its founders and builders somehow concocted a way to make a major state research university with 50,000 students and 10,000 staff in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania feel like Swarthmore, Princeton or Dartmouth. It’s leafy, viney, small-town blue and white. One of its coffee shops could be in Athens, Ohio or Berkeley, CA. State College rocks on a football Saturday, but hugs you the other six days.

It’s huge, yet simultaneously intimate.

And the evil that invaded Happy Valley in the last decade defiled that intimacy, corrupted the lovely innocence of the place. We know professors there, students and of course dozens of We Are-besotted alums. They’re wonderful, wholesome, high-achieving, yet humble people. Can’t beat ’em.

So the Jerry Sandusky/Joe Paterno scandal and crisis stands out for all the reasons everyone’s said and commented. Can’t change the shame of it. How to fix it? Time, mostly; appropriate commitment to children; some more convictions and admissions of guilt; and taking responsibility all would also help.

And find a coach, but more so a father, named Bill O’Brien.

As ESPN’s Rick Reilly writes, character still abounds at Penn State.

It takes the form of a football coach, his family and a team of young men to be long remembered.

Read Reilly’s piece; he writes it far, far better than I could. [You can take the guy out of Sports Illustrated and plop him down on an ESPN set, but you can’t take the Sports Illustrated out of the guy; thank god.]

Sports boasts and exposes all the human frailties and excesses. If we watched “Hedge Fund Gameday” or “Monday Night Congress,” we’d probably see the same human muck that sports spray all over any given week. But when sports are at their best, they’re sublime. It’s about character and overcoming obstacles and, yes, it’s about love.

When Penn State senior linebacker Michael Mauti tore his knee in the second-to-last game and for the third time in his career, my wife wept. But she wept more a week later when, against Wisconsin, Mauti galloped along the sidelines, cap reversed, headset on, brown locks snapping as he screamed encouragement to the teammates he could not join on the field.

Mauti was among the team’s leaders last summer who convinced many of its best players to stay and play for the new guy, when they could have left like some of the other stars. Mauti put on his #42 jersey Saturday without the self-pity, just his name on the back. He didn’t stand on the fringes, worrying about his NFL future. He had a game to play. He just couldn’t get out on the field to play it, but dammit he was still giving 100 percent. And if you’d asked him why, he’d look at you like you’d just landed from Mars.

And you know what? I’m not surprised. Proud to witness it, but not surprised. I was in former Penn State and Buffalo Bills linebacker Shane Conlan’s home in Frewsburg, NY the day the Bills drafted him. I’ve met Penn State linebackers Paul Posluszny and Scott Radicec and safety Bryan Scott. The Buffalo Bills didn’t go to four straight Super Bowls only because of their skill. They went with and because of leaders, like Conlan and Radicec and Darryl Talley and Kent Hull.

Mauti, Conlan, Radicec, Posluszny, Navarro Bowman and all the others didn’t just go to Linebacker U with other greats. They continued to build its reputation, brick by brick. Show me another college kid who did what Mauti did last Saturday on Senior Day. Another prominent injured college player on national television last Saturday chatted with his buddies and looked handsome on the sidelines, paying little attention to what his on-field teammates did. There’s a lot of “I” in his team.

Mauti’s father and brother played at Penn State. He was selected to speak, representing the 2010s, at Paterno’s memorial service last winter.

And that focuses what’s special about Penn State. The character isn’t something Mauti and the others brought to it — though they’ve contributed mightily — it’s the character that attracted them in the first place. Watch the video of Mauti’s talk at Paterno’s service, linked above. Mauti’s 21 or 22 and speaks from the heart without notes.

There are no excuses for the crimes committed under Penn State’s roof, nor for the apparent cover up and guilty leaders. As we’ve written many times here previously, there’s also no forgiving the failure of this great university’s leaders to handle this crisis much, much more effectively and properly.

But the elusive opportunity in any crisis is for transformative leadership, to emerge from the dark days into the light stronger, more resolute, indeed, better — forged into something stronger through the tribulations of failure and humiliation.

For the season’s last game, the team’s amazing eighth win, what did the Penn State players do? They put Mauti’s number on their helmets — all of them. This on a team that for decades had no names on their jerseys and nothing on the white helmets except two blue stripes. You know what else Penn State did? It listed the 2012 team on Beaver Stadium’s ring of best teams, along with the undefeated ones and the national champions. Somewhere, JoePa smiled.

Joe Paterno found and coached them for three years. Bill O’Brien helped forge them. Michael Mauti did as well. So did the Penn State community. I’m proud to be a tiny, married-in-to-it part of the We Are! nation.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.


About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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