The Kingdom and the Power

Why the reign of Joe Paterno came to a crashing halt

Joe Paterno and Graham Spanier created the juggernaut that was Penn State, a blue and white utopia that became one of the commonwealth's dominant institutions. In doing so, did they also create the culture that ultimately led to the worst scandal in the history of college athletics?

For a map explaining the scandal, click here.

When the book is written on the child-sex scandal that scorched Penn State in the fall of 2011, an important thread of the tale should focus on this: The concentration of power in the hands of too few people for far too long is a recipe for disaster.

For surely the end of the era of Joe Paterno, major-college football's winningest coach, and PSU President Graham Spanier, among the nation's longest-serving university chiefs, is tied to their power, their tenures and the insularity each helped to build at their institution.

Football, of course, is at the core. For a generation, it drew money, politics and clout to its isolated locale. At the same time, the school grew a reputation for self-protection, arrogance and self-righteous superiority. The real world was elsewhere. This was a world unto itself: a better world.

Despite Penn State's size - 96,000 students on 24 campuses with a $4 billion annual budget - the only real outside scrutiny the school regularly faced was about wins and losses on the football field.

No more. The scandal that got Paterno fired after 61 years on campus and sent Spanier packing after 16 years as president brought more attention to Pennsylvania than anything since Three Mile Island. And half the shock was that it happened at this pristine palace of propriety, this Wholesome Valley, this bucolic place where "Happy" is part of the nickname. How the university responded, after years of incidents and a multiyear probe that included school officials testifying before a grand jury, how it abandoned alleged victims, how it was caught unprepared to deal with the resulting firestorm, demonstrates an institutional belief that it is above reproach - or even suspicion. "If this was an urban campus, I'm convinced things would be different," says William J. Green, a Pittsburgh political analyst. "There's this mind-set that Penn State is self-contained, and nobody questions anything."

And mostly, nobody did. A few men built a kingdom they reigned over on their own terms. They fashioned a blue-white utopia that became too big to fail, too dominant to doubt. Control and insulation protected them for decades, and certainly played a role in their downfall. When Pennsylvania State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan spoke of the scandal this past week, he called Penn State home to "a culture that did nothing to stop it or prevent it from happening again."

I, as a central Pennsylvania native, know firsthand the omnipresence of the university, the zealous loyalty of its grads and the power of its deity, football. Though it may be hard for some in Philadelphia to grasp, the pull of Penn State football, to a large portion of the state, is nothing short of magnetic. Each fall, on seven or eight home-game Saturdays, State College becomes Pennsylvania's third-largest city, home to 107,000 devoted denizens. Parking lots extend to the horizon. Tailgating, for many, starts on Friday, and doesn't end until Sunday. To the vast regions between Philly and Pittsburgh, Beaver Stadium is a Mecca-like sacred site. Thanks to its success, fan base and TV rights, the football program generates $70 million in revenue, $50 million in profit, enough to pay for every other sport but men's basketball. There are 27 other sports at the school.

It's true that Penn State, over the past several decades, has enhanced its academic standing. It has grown and expanded. It offers top-tier facilities and faculty. It has become one of the nation's most popular schools, with 122,000 freshman applications this year. But it is still nationally known for the "Grand Experiment," Paterno's name for a football program built to prove that athletic excellence is attainable without sacrificing academics. That effort was largely successful. Current NCAA data show that Penn State tied with Stanford at first in the nation for highest graduation rates (87 percent) among the top-25 teams in the BCS standings. So it's ironic that such a highly respected program built on a code of integrity, run by maybe the most-praised football coach in America, ends up staining itself and its university from within.

The indictment of legendary former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky on 40 counts related to the sexual abuse of eight children over 15 years, some of which is alleged to have taken place in the football complex, is horrific. That the knowledge of such behavior apparently was purposely contained since at least 1998 is just as bad - since it allowed the abuse to continue. Charges of a coverup against (so far) longtime athletic director Tim Curley and a senior vice president, Gary Schultz, who oversaw campus police, suggest a conspiracy of secrecy, one designed with a single goal: to protect the house that Joe built.

I figure it has to be broader. Is it an extreme example of an institutional attitude? Evidence of an unspoken doctrine? "We don't play by the same rules as other, lesser schools." There were certainly signs of such thinking. Penn State is state-supported. It gets something north of $330 million in tax dollars annually, counting agriculture research and other programs. Yet the university, for years, declined to release Paterno's salary; it as much as said, "Our business, nobody else's."

When the Harrisburg Patriot-News sued and - after a long legal battle - won its case against Penn State in 2007, it reported JoePa's annual take at $512,664. But even then there was acknowledgment that that wasn't his full compensation. Indeed, it was only after the state passed a right-to-know law in 2009 that we learned Joe's real pay: $1,037,322. I'm not saying he didn't deserve it. I'm just saying that hiding it was a show of attitude.

Then there's Spanier, who, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, pulled the fifth-highest university pay in America, a total annual package in excess of $800,000. He, too, was known for attitude. Several sources, including a high-ranking lawmaker and a former Penn State trustee, both of whom spoke on condition they not be named, cite what they call Spanier's air of superiority. "I literally told one of their lobbyists a few years back not to bring him to my office anymore," said the legislative leader. "I just couldn't stand the clear implication he was giving orders. He was smart. I was stupid."

The former trustee tells me board meetings were largely pro-forma events to rubber-stamp decisions Spanier had already made or implemented, whether it was expanding satellite campuses, creating a law school or merging PSU's Hershey-based medical school with Geisinger Medical Center in Danville - a merger that ultimately failed. "There was almost no real give-and-take or conversation among members of the board," the onetime trustee said. "Indeed, there was a sense that members were to sit there and be quiet."

And yet, because of football, appointments to the Penn State board were regarded as top political plums. "I saw grown men grovel and cry to be on the board for the chance to go to JoePa's house for Saturday spaghetti dinner," a former gubernatorial aide told me. "It was sickening."

But PSU long has been cozy with the state's political world. The Legislature includes 28 graduates, nearly double the number from Pitt, the second-most-attended college among lawmakers. Those 28 include House Speaker Sam Smith and Senate President Joe Scarnati, both Republicans from Jefferson County, and two other members of GOP Senate leadership, Senate Appropriations Chairman Jake Corman, of Centre County, and Senate GOP Caucus Chairman Mike Waugh, of York County. Game tickets, especially in Beaver Stadium's luxury boxes, have long been perks that PSU presents to lawmakers. Just this year, after Gov. Corbett proposed cutting state aid to PSU by 54 percent, the Legislature restored most of the funding. The cut ended up at 19 percent.

But then Penn State often gets what it wants because of football. And football does as it pleases. Take season tickets. A friend who as a Penn State undergraduate was sports editor of the Daily Collegian explains why he no longer holds season tickets - after 41 years. "The program this year began new pricing for what's called 'black-zone' seats, prime spots between the 30-yard lines," says Fran Fanucci, of Cumberland County. That new pricing meant the annual $600 contribution required for the privilege to buy season tickets at $55 each per game (he had four) jumped to a required $600 contribution for each ticket. In his case, that's a quadrupling from $600 to $2,400. It also tacked on a $100 fee to park in the grass near the stadium.

But that's not the worst of it, says Fanucci. The new program also prohibits the transfer of season tickets to a family member (he planned to give them to his adult son) unless one pays a mandatory $1,500-per-ticket "transfer fee," or, in his case, an additional $6,000. "A lot of old-timers, and I mean thousands, who were going to Penn State before it was Penn State, got irritated and opted out  . . . I mean if I can't transfer tickets to my kid without paying $6,000, there's something wrong."

Clearly, there's something wrong at Penn State. The reputation of what was long viewed as a great university has been tarnished. That black mark, I think, is rooted in the notion that protecting certain individuals was more important than preserving integrity of the institution, that legacy was more important than basic humanity.

It will take time to fix. It will take more transparency. And it will take the type of leadership that is more concerned with acting upon its ideals than with burnishing its image.

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