Last week, at Penn State’s conference on child sexual abuse, head football coach Bill O’Brien went up in front of the podium to introduce boxing great Sugar Ray Leonard, who was a featured speaker.
“Good morning, my name’s Bill O’Brien, and I’m the head football coach at Penn State,” said the coach, showing a smile, pausing for the clapping, then thanking the crowd twice.
O’Brien took time out of his busy schedule, which came less than 48 hours after a disheartening 35-23 loss at home to Ohio State and in the early stages of his week planning for the game against Purdue.
That resonated with university President Rodney Erickson.
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In an interview Monday morning, Erickson pointed to that moment as proof the athletic department’s integration with the rest of the university is under way. That integration is one of many recommendations in former FBI director Louis Freeh’s report to the university on what went wrong and how pedophile Jerry Sandusky was enabled to victimize young boys on campus.
“The athletic department now fully understands the chain of responsibility, the reporting structure, and discussions that we’re having all around the university about various aspects are involving university athletics,” said Erickson, who took over the reins as the president last November when his predecessor, Graham Spanier, was forced out amid furor over the Sandusky indictment.
During the 20-minute interview with the Centre Daily Times, Erickson discussed ways the university is recovering after the Sandusky scandal made Penn State synonymous with cover-ups and thrust it into a year characterized by ups and downs.
The integration of athletics was one of the 119 recommendations made by Freeh, who said the university community’s reverence for football allowed the pedophile Sandusky to take advantage of his stature and prey on young boys.
Erickson, who was the provost before his promotion, could not say if he believed in the football culture characterization prior to last year, because he did not know how the athletic department ran.
Prosecutors from the state Attorney General’s Office accused Spanier of being in on a cover-up to keep on-campus shower incidents involving Sandusky out of the public eye. Spanier and former senior leaders Tim Curley and Gary Schultz have been indicted on charges related to the alleged cover-up.
Penn State is not commenting on the latest charges, brought last week, but Erickson said Spanier is a “strong academic” who as president for 16 years understood that to attract high-caliber faculty and students, there needed to be strong facilities and infrastructure in place to do it. Spanier oversaw building projects, like the law school, the business school, and the IST Building over North Atherton Street.
Spanier was put on administrative leave after he was indicted.
As his boss, Spanier gave Erickson latitude for academics, and they created a number of interdisciplinary initiatives — ones that combine scientists and researchers from different fields of study to work together, like in life sciences and energy and the environment.
The presentment indicting Spanier, Curley and Schultz suggests that university employees and officials were among those subpoenaed to testify in front of the grand jury. Some evidence for the charges was based on the testimony of Cynthia Baldwin, the former in-house university counsel who has come under scrutiny for the way she handled Curley and Schultz’s grand jury testimony last year.
Erickson was not mentioned by name in the presentment, but he testified at the grand jury in early September, he said.
But he said he cannot talk about it.
“The judge specifically asked me not to disclose the nature of the questions or my testimony,” Erickson said.
The Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on that order.
Erickson is among those who have taken heat from the way the university handled the events of the past year.
Alumni remain irate about how Erickson accepted the NCAA sanctions, which include a four-year post-season bowl ban, scholarship reductions and erasing 112 wins, all but one of them Paterno’s. Some say the president did not have the authority to make that decision on his own.
The board of trustees continues to be a target for criticism for the firing of former head coach Joe Paterno.
Someone is paying for billboards, with the message “You can’t cover up 61 years of success with honor,” that dot U.S. Route 322 for motorists coming here on a football Saturday from Harrisburg. There’s another one hanging over a parking lot off Beaver Avenue.
A writeup on The Penn Stater alumni magazine’s blog about Erickson and board Chairwoman Karen Peetz speaking with 80-some members of an alumni group resulted in a firestorm of more than 600 angry comments. Most posts on the site get a few here and there. Peetz defended Erickson’s accepting the sanctions.
At the Ohio State game two weekends ago, Erickson and acting athletic director Dave Joyner took the field during halftime for a ceremony to recognize academic achievements.
The crowd of white-clad fans booed.
“I understand that there a lot of deep feelings about everything that’s happened within the past more than a year, and that will continue to linger for some time,” Erickson said Monday. “I think the more that people understand the background, and the reasons why some of the decisions were made — including decisions that I made — the more understanding they will have about these things.
“I continue to find that many people haven’t really looked deeply into the issues.”
While the sanctions were handed down without the NCAA doing its own investigation, the U.S. Department of Education is doing one to see whether Penn State violated the Clery Act in not reporting the incidents involving Sandusky.
Each violation could cost Penn State up to $27,500 for each violation.
Erickson expects a draft report from the Education Department in a month or two.
“I expect that we’ll hear that there were deficiencies before last November,” he said. “We’re certainly well aware of some deficiencies that we had in terms of compliance with the Clery Act.”
Penn State will respond to the draft report, and the draft and the response will be reviewed by the Education Department. The whole process will take “quite a few months,” Erickson said.
On the flip side, Erickson expects that Education Department officials to recognize Penn State has made “tremendous progress,” as he said, since last year, such as hiring someone full-time to make sure the university is compliant with reporting crimes subject to the Clery Act.
As busy as Erickson’s job has to be, and as weary he has to have become by the events of the past year, the 66-year-old’s face brightens up when he talks about students and faculty here.
Erickson said he welcomed an enthusiastic and positive freshman class in August, and students are all-in for outreach and service activities like Homecoming and the annual dance marathon that raises money to benefit the families of pediatric cancer patients at Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital.
Faculty keep having success in getting grant money to do their research, with the university pulling in more than $700 million last year. Erickson said that comes at a time when federal funding is flat and the university is competing for a “larger share of a fixed pie.”
“They continue to make me so proud,” he said.