"The generation-long experiment in creating independent athletic departments is probably over," Larry Cata Backer, head of Penn State's faculty senate, said in a telephone interview Friday after attending the university's board of trustees meeting in Scranton. "Penn State is probably going to be taking a leading role in creating a new model."
"If you look at the last five years, take all the major [NCAA] infractions, tell me how many are major land-grant football institutions that are set up with separate incorporated athletic entities," said one Division I athletic director. "The Penn State athletic association is separate. It's a separate entity. Separate entities can work. But when you have separate structures . . . there's risk involved."
Backer said "the nature of the conversation" has to change regarding athletics. "I think traditionally, athletic staffs and faculty have tended to talk at each other, and haven't listened." He predicted it will be a long road ahead in changing the culture in State College, "and it's going to be tough, but you'll have a chance for a much more fruitful conversation."
Backer said he believes other schools are looking closely at how Penn State moves forward, many of them, he said, thinking "There but for the grace of God . . ."
"Freeh made the statement that the [Penn State] athletic department had become an island," said Penn State-Abington athletic director Karen Weaver. "I think that's a common feeling among high-level BCS schools, that they need to hunker down to get done what they need to get done. The university has to make a decision: Do we embrace this culture? Any coach believes they have to be in control of everything that happens, everything. That is not a tenet of university governance."
"Nobody thought this was a very bad thing for a long time - now, of course, everybody is revising," Backer said of having independent athletic departments, noting that was only one of the factors that led to the scandal.
The Freeh report said that Penn State's structure needs to change, that it wasn't just the failure of human beings that allowed Jerry Sandusky to operate on campus for years after investigations had taken place involving the molestation of children. The structure didn't have adequate checks and balances to monitor any layer of the university.
The Freeh report primarily stuck to issues involving Sandusky. But one footnote cited a senior Penn State staffer who said the university handles 4,000 cases of student off-campus misconduct a year and he knew of only two cases in which punishments were reduced, both involving football players.
Weaver said she keeps asking herself: How do you change a culture?
"I think the only way to change a culture is change the players," Weaver said. "I'm hopeful Penn State will continue an accelerated level of change, of bringing people that are not Penn Staters."
Backer said that is an issue that has to be looked at, but said there may have been a belief within the athletic department that they did have "a culture of respect for education in athletics. There might have been a fear that bringing people in from the outside, things would have gotten worse. In hindsight, you say, 'Oh, maybe that wouldn't have been that good.' There was no evil intent."
David Ridpath, a sports management professor at Ohio University and former athletic administrator in charge of compliance, told the Centre Daily Times that having a former player for Paterno serving as athletic director blurred the lines of the organizational chart at Penn State. Tim Curley, who grew up just across the street from old Beaver Stadium, had been a walk-on player for the Nittany Lions. "Schools should fear that situation because it shows who's really in charge," he said.
An example of a university president trying to gain more control of athletics was in 2003 at Vanderbilt, where former chancellor Gordon Gee fired the athletic director and actually did away with the position, merging athletics into student affairs, making the head of athletics a university vice president with an office in the central administration building. Gee did not make the same move at his next job as president of Ohio State, where a cover-up over improper benefits to players cost Buckeyes football coach Jim Tressel his job.
Speaking to the Centre Daily Times, Ridpath said it is unlikely the NCAA will sanction Penn State primarily because of the precedent it would set. He noted that it would force the NCAA to get involved in cases such as one at Montana where football players were accused of sexual assault.
Weaver, who is about to leave her job as athletic director at Penn State-Abington to teach sports management at Drexel, said she is trying to read the tea leaves about what the NCAA will do.
"I don't think they know yet," Weaver said. "I think they're probably stunned at the layers of this. . . . Remember, the NCAA is a membership institution, made of schools that can say, 'There but for the grace of God go I.' "
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said Thursday the conference would continue "a prudent, thoughtful, and patient" review of the case.
"I'm curious what the Big Ten is going to do," Weaver said. "I think they have a bigger hammer, believe it or not."
She noted that the other 11 schools could talk about how "you are who you associate with," and decide to censure Penn State or even talk about withholding revenue for a year or other time period.
The Division I athletic director said he had gotten through 95 of the 267 pages of the Freeh report Thursday night and kept shaking his head at "how that board was so disconnected. Our board goes into executive session for at least an hour every meeting with the president and general counsel. If they didn't report something one-fiftieth the size of this, their [job] would be on the line."
This athletic director also noted that when an athletic situation at his school drew negative media attention, "it wasn't criminal. But they [the board] were absolutely on this the whole time, for the care of the university."
Don DiJulia, athletic director at St. Joseph's, said the school has had 11 training sessions on federal laws in the last year that athletic department personnel, including coaches, are required to attend. He added, "Since Nov. 5," the day Sandusky was arrested, "everybody is tweaking their minors-on-campus policy."
DiJulia added, "We all live in a glass house, and we all have to remember that an individual isn't greater than the whole. Everybody has to be held accountable. People in charge need to say, these are the laws of the land here, separate from university policies."
The Freeh report noted that most of the football staff had never heard of the Clery Act, the federal law that requires the reporting of certain crimes on campus.
"You talk about an insulated entity," the Division I athletic director said. "Holy cow, they never heard of it."
Although Joe Paterno reported to the athletic director, as the Freeh report noted, the report had specific recommendations regarding athletics, starting with, "Revise the organizational structure of the athletic department to clearly define lines of authority, responsibilities and reporting relationships."
Of the larger cultural changes that need to take place at Penn State, "there's no machine you can pull off the shelf and presto-bango, you have a new operation," Backer said, noting that the trustees have announced they will be much more involved.
Backer noted that as corporate and educational governing structures, and board of trustee monitoring, evolved in recent years, "Penn State never kept up."
DiJulia at St. Joseph's said the governing system isn't the central issue, in athletics or in governing a university as a whole.
"I'm sure the organizational chart at Penn State is as sound as 97 percent of the organizations in the country," DiJulia said. "If the people are doing the right thing, any organizational chart can work. It's about the people."
Contact Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or email@example.com or on Twitter @Jensenoffcampus.