Sunday, January 20

Distant Replay: Success With Honor thwarted NCAA, BOT

The PSU BOT's and the NCAA's plan to cripple the Nittany Lion football program failed because they believed Joe Paterno had recruited merely football players

Ray Blehar
January 20, 2019, 9:50 AM EST

On the Friday after the Freeh Report was released to the public, former Penn State University (PSU) President Rodney Erickson and NCAA President Mark Emmert began collaborating to solve alleged cultural issues with the football program that allegedly enabled Jerry Sandusky's serial sexual victimization of children.  By Monday, Erickson had a list of proposed penalties in his hands.    

According to the deposition of former PSU Board of Trustees (BOT) chairman Keith Masser, the former PSU president informed  him on Tuesday or Wednesday that PSU and the NCAA were negotiating from a list of possible sanctions.  Consistent with Masser's deposition, Gene Marsh (who was purportedly representing PSU in the negotiations) also recalled that the list of penalties was delivered to him on Tuesday. 

Those lists did not include a death penalty -- and to Masser's recollection, a death penalty could only come as a result of the NCAA conducting its normal investigation process.  Masser's recollection was confirmed in emails by former NCAA Executive Committee Chair Ed Ray and NCAA General Counsel Donald Remy. 

So why didn't the PSU BOT, who undoubtedly knew that an NCAA investigation would find nothing in the way of violations, opt for a NCAA investigation? 

A Public Relations Campaign

The evidence shows that the decision to use an alternative resolution process (i.e., a consent decree) was another step in the BOT's ongoing public relations strategy to cast themselves as righteous do-gooders looking out for the University's best interest -- while making every effort to cast former President Graham Spanier, legendary coach Joe Paterno, and the football program as the elements that gave rise to the "culture" problems. 

Erickson wasted no time publicizing the "culture" problem and throwing PSU athletics under the bus.  His five point promise was delivered just two days after the removals of Paterno and Spanier.  It included the following language:

-- I ask for the support of the entire Penn State community to work together to reorient our culture. Never again should anyone at Penn State feel scared to do the right thing. My door will always be open.

-- I will ensure proper governance and oversight exists across the entire University, including Intercollegiate Athletics.

Eight month's later, former FBI Director Louis Freeh delivered an  $8.5 million dollar propaganda piece as part of the PR campaign.   Freeh wrote there was "a culture of reverence to the football program that is ingrained at all levels of the campus community."  And two weeks later, that exact language was used in the NCAA Consent Decree.

The most stunning thing about the "culture" issue was that Erickson, former BOT chairs Karen Peetz and John Surma, and other board members actually believed it to be true.   They believed that the vast majority of PSU alumni were rubes who only cared about watching football.

According to emails from the Corman case, the  death penalty canard came about because PSU BOT officials believed that if they were credited with saving the football program then the alums and fans would be forever grateful (and "move on"). 

While the sanctions wouldn't kill the football program, they were designed to plunge the program into mediocrity and create a revolving door of coaches.  There would never be another coach that would stay forever and become one of the most respected leaders on campus. 

The Planned Plunge into Mediocrity

Erickson and his cohorts,who were resolute in changing the purported "football culture" constructed, with the assistance of the NCAA enforcement staff, a set of penalties that would extract a "pound of flesh."

The ban on post-season play, reductions of scholarships and the decision that players could transfer to another school and become immediately eligible was expected to cause enough attrition to be uncompetitive.

The NCAA enforcement staff and the Committee on Infractions (COI) were used to dealing with dishonest individuals who had no loyalty to anyone and only acted in their own self-interest.   The inner circle of the PSU BOT, some of whom have demonstrated those same traits, believed that PSU football players would readily abandon Happy Valley for the opportunity to showcase their talents on winning football teams and to play in a bowl game.

After the penalties were levied,  the BOT and NCAA watched as other programs made contact with PSU players -- some invading the PSU campus -- to persuade them to play elsewhere.

All that was left for Erickson and Emmert to do was see who would jump ship and then watch new coach Bill O'Brien struggle to win a football game.

Success With Honor Thwarted NCAA, BOT

The mass exodus of players didn't happen.

As described in detail in John U. Bacon's Fourth and Long, seniors Mike Mauti and Mike Zordich, both recruits of Joe Paterno and whose fathers who played for Paterno, held the core of the team together.

There were a few defections.  Star running back Silas Redd went to USC.  Wide receiver Justin Brown opted for Oklahoma  and kicker Anthony Fera went back home to play for Texas.

Their absence would be enough to provide the NCAA and BOT with a false sense of confidence that their plan to crush PSU football was working.  By the end of the day on September 8, 2012,  O'Brien's Lions were winless.

In an opening day upset in Beaver Stadium, the absences of Redd and Brown were felt as the offense couldn't do anything in the second half of a 24-14 loss to Ohio University of the Mid-America Conference (MAC).  PSU hadn't lost to MAC team since the home opener in 2000 -- an embarrassing loss to Toledo.   That edition of the Nittany Lions finished the season 5-6.

On September 8, the Lions traveled to Charlottesville, Virginia where they fell to the Cavaliers by a score of 17-16.   The team was without starting running back Bill Belton and the offense struggled.  But even more, Fera's absence was felt in that loss. Kicker Sam Ficken had an extra point blocked and missed five (5) field goals, including the potential game winner as time expired.


By the graces of the schedule and the players getting the hang of O'Brien's system, the Lion's reeled off five straight wins with dominating wins over Navy, Temple, and Illinois, then turned in two more impressive performances against formidable Big Ten foes Northwestern and Iowa.


National sportswriters took notice and began writing about the incredible turnaround in Happy Valley.  O'Brien was being talked about as one of the favorites for Big Ten and national coach of the year honors.  He would win both.

O'Brien and the players who persevered were the feel-good college football story of 2012.

They closed the season out going 3-2, including a thrilling win over the eventual conference champions, Wisconsin, in the final game to finish 8-4.  Sam Ficken, who was the goat at Virginia, was the hero in overtime when he kicked the game winner.  The Lions finished with the third best record in the conference, behind Ohio State and Nebraska.

 However, the biggest thrill - and surprise -- of the 2012 season happened before that game kicked off when a banner was unveiled to honor the players -- Paterno's players -- and coaches who stood tall in the face of adversity.

The 2012 recognized the true legacy of Joe Paterno -- the players who stood tall in the face of adversity

Alumnus Michael J. Farrell, whose son Mike was a player on the 2012 team, donated $1 million to the Football Excellence Fund of Intercollegiate Athletics.  In explaining his contribution, Farrell said:

“This gift honors those who stayed, those who came, and those who came back.  By that, I mean the 2012 players and coaches who stayed in the face of adversity, those players and coaches who came later in spite of that adversity, and finally, those hundreds and hundreds of lettermen who came back in 2012 to support that team and the program.”

When you look at that 2012 hanging in Beaver Stadium, it's there because of something called Success With Honor. 


  1. Wow. Thank you for writing this, Ray. I get emotional each time I relive reading these facts. It still amazes that none of the actors have demonstratated the courage to admit their mistakes or mis-deeds. And now we have three alumni trustees wanting re-election, and from what I could see didn't back Lubrano as much as needed.

    1. Bob,
      Thanks for your comment and for reading the blogpost.

      As I wrote, the bad actors among the Board were somewhat delusional to think that we would view them as heroes for agreeing to being penalized without exercising PSU's right to due process.

      Peetz, Surma, Frazier, and most of the other bad actors beat it out of town when they saw that the alums weren't the rubes they thought us to be and were going to use every legal means available to find out what happened.

      The three trustees (Bill Oldsey, Ted Brown, and Barb Doran) are all parties to the lawsuit (along with Lubrano, Pope, McCombie and Jubelirer) that sought the Freeh documents. I have no insight, however, into how much each has contributed in time or effort to the work involved in bringing the truth forward.

  2. Thank you Ray for your continued dedication and information. I appreciate your hard work and loyalty.
    We Are. Success with Honor.