Franco Harris leads group upset by treatment of Paterno and Penn State

Joe Paterno (left) and Franco Harris (right)

Franco Harris leads a group of 15,000 Penn State alumni called Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship.

  • The group represents a backlash of Penn State's 600,000 alumni against what they see as too easy acceptance of the notion that the university shares blame for Sandusky's crimes.
  • The Penn State Alumni Association released a survey showing mixed feelings among members on how the university handled the Sandusky crisis.

Franco Harris hears what some call him: dead-ender, die-hard, excuse-maker.

Fifteen months ago, when the Pennsylvania State University board of trustees fired coach Joe Paterno, Harris was among the first of Paterno's former players to stand up for him.

"Why did they fire Joe? There was no evidence," the pro football Hall of Famer asked then - and asks now.

Now, the former Pittsburgh Steeler has been joined by 15,000 Penn State alumni in a group called Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship. Not only was Paterno wronged in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal, they say, but so, too, was the university - in part by its leadership.

"The investigation was about Sandusky, but the blame went on Penn State," Harris said after hosting a Jan. 25 forum in King of Prussia attended by more than 200 Penn State alumni, many in blue and white.

The group represents a backlash by a portion of Penn State's 600,000 alumni against what they see as too easy acceptance of the notion that the university shares blame for Sandusky's crimes.

Maribeth Schmidt, of Gwynedd Valley, Class of 1988, said the goal was to oust trustees who were on the board when the Sandusky scandal broke in November 2011.

Since then, much has happened. Paterno died. His statue was removed from Beaver Stadium. Sandusky, Paterno's former top assistant, is doing 30 years in prison. Graham B. Spanier, who was Penn State's president, faces charges that include child endangerment. Two other former top administrators await trial on perjury charges. And the university has agreed to pay a $60 million fine and accept harsh sanctions from the NCAA.

"I think what gets me riled up the most is that no one in the leadership of Penn State stood up for Penn State," said Schmidt, who runs a public relations firm. "Nobody took the time to take a deep breath and say, let's investigate this thing and see exactly what happened before we start throwing people under the bus."

Penn State did investigate. The trustees hired former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh to look into Penn State's role.

Freeh, issuing his report in July, said: "Our most saddening and sobering finding is the total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky's child victims by the most senior leaders at Penn State."

Harris and others dismiss Freeh's efforts.

"Full of holes," said Harris.

"I don't know if you can call the Freeh report an investigation," said Michelle Murosky, a 2003 architectural-engineering graduate who started Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship as a Facebook group.

"There was an awful lot of information that was missing and incomplete," she said. "The Freeh report created more questions than answers."

The alumni group commissioned lawyers, working free, to go over the Freeh report, which they found "incomplete."

The real culprits, they say? The Second Mile, a youth charity Sandusky ran; State College police; Centre County Children and Youth Services; and the state Department of Public Welfare.

These were "trained professionals," they said, who, as much as university leaders, had indications as far back as 1998 that Sandusky might be a child abuser.

The soft-spoken Harris, Class of 1972, is a Pittsburgh businessman. He helps operate a bakery and also a company that makes high-tech clothing for the military.

He is the most vocal of Paterno's former players. He largely paid for the Jan. 25 gathering at the Radisson Hotel Valley Forge and helped finance a similar event the next day in Washington.

"When you start hearing all these lies and I would say misleading information about what Penn State stands for, what Joe stands for - his character - you can't just sit idly by," Harris said. "And so I started talking about it. I didn't know I'd still be here a year later."

Freeh discovered e-mails in February 2001 among top Penn State administrators. The group, which included athletic director Tim Curley, discussed how to respond to assistant football coach Mike McQueary's claim that he had seen Sandusky in a shower with a boy.

Freeh said the group had decided to tell the Welfare Department. "After Mr. Curley consulted with Mr. Paterno, however, they changed the plan." No report would be made.

There remains a question about how specific McQueary was when he initially spoke to Paterno. "Everybody says that Joe knew, that Joe had to know," Harris said. "There is no proof."

Polls of Penn State alumni - and Pennsylvania residents - show strong feeling that the NCAA went too far in stripping the school of football victories going back 14 years and barring it from bowl games for four years.

A Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday, found that "by a 43-29 percent [ratio] Pennsylvania voters have a favorable opinion of the late Joe Paterno."

The 169,000-member Penn State Alumni Association, the official, campus-based group, released a survey last month that showed mixed feelings among members on how the university handled the Sandusky crisis.

Sixteen percent said most of Penn State's actions were "the right thing to do." Twenty percent said they were wrong. A majority - 56 percent - called it a mix.

Roger Williams, director of the official alumni group, said it has taken no position.

Speaking of Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, Williams said: "We understand their point of view. We appreciate it. But we have a [different] role."

Of 32 members of the Penn State board, nine are elected by alumni.

The dissidents, just getting organized last April, elected one of their own. They hope to win all three seats up this spring.

Candidates have until Feb. 25 to get on the ballot. After that, the group will make endorsements, Murosky said.

The group has no paid member list. Its basis for citing 15,000 supporters is the number of alumni who have made contact through its website and social media.

Murosky, of Illinois, said the Penn State "brand" has been "trashed" by what has happened.

If she wears a Penn State hat or shirt, she said, "People are, like, 'You approve of child abuse?' It's ridiculous."


Contact Tom Infield

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