Jay Paterno and another longtime Penn State assistant football coach are suing the university for their dismissal from the staff during the height of the Jerry Sandusky scandal in 2012.
Paterno and Bill Kenney filed the lawsuit Monday in federal court, asking for damages in excess of $1 million, and alleging they were made pariahs in the eyes of potential employers because of the timing of their firing.
The men worked under Jay Paterno’s father, the late head coach Joe Paterno, until he was fired by the university in the days after the Sandusky scandal broke. Paterno’s successor, Bill O’Brien, chose not to bring the assistants back.
Penn State said in a prepared statement Tuesday that it’s common practice for incoming head coaches to pick their own staff, and that the university won’t comment further on the matter.
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Attorneys for Paterno and Kenney said the men were left “to twist in the proverbial winds of innuendo” after their dismissal and with the release the Freeh report, the internal Penn State investigation that implicated top university officials in a cover-up of child sexual abuse allegations against Sandusky.
That was followed by the consent decree — the agreement Penn State entered into with the NCAA that levied historic sanctions against the university, which stated “(s)ome coaches, administrators and football program staff members ignored the red flags of Sandusky’s behaviors and no one warned the public about him.”
Paterno and Kenney also are suing the NCAA in Centre County Court, claiming the consent decree defamed them and prevented them from being able to get top coaching jobs. Paterno’s brother, Scott Paterno, and others, including trustees and former football players, are also part of the lawsuit, which seeks to have the consent decree overturned.
Although the men were never implicated in wrongdoing in the Freeh investigation, their reputations were ruined in the eyes of potential employers, the lawsuit against Penn State alleges.
Penn State never issued a statement after their termination exonerating the men “so as to preserve their good name, reputation, honor and integrity,” attorneys for Paterno and Kenney wrote.
As a result, the coaches were met with “disdain and disinterest” when seeking other jobs at top-tier college football programs and at prominent national media outlets such as ESPN, they allege.
“... Penn State terminated each of them at the height of the Sandusky scandal’s dark shroud and without any attempt whatsoever by Penn State to preserve the reputations of these guiltless individuals,” attorneys wrote in the suit.
Kenney, a former offensive line coach at Penn State, eventually secured an assistant coach position at Western Michigan. But he unsuccessfully applied at Illinois, Wisconsin, Purdue, Florida State and other programs as well as several NFL teams.
He claims in the suit that interviews for those jobs focused on whether Penn State coaches ignored “the red flags of Sandusky’s behaviors.” One Division I school instructed its head coach not to interview or consider hiring any former Penn State assistants, he alleged.
Paterno applied for head coaching positions at Connecticut, James Madison, Colorado and Boston College, but didn’t get an interview. Another major school considered Penn State coaches “too toxic” after the consent decree, he alleged.
He also had been in talks with ESPN and other networks to work as a commentator, but no offers were made because his “hiring was considered too controversial, because if they placed Paterno in an ‘on-the-air’ position, the networks would have no choice but to have Paterno publicly address past events at Penn State and developments arising from the Sandusky scandal, given the baseless findings as set forth in the consent decree and Freeh report.”
Paterno and Kenney are represented by Philadelphia attorneys Maurice Mitts and Edward Mazurek.
In the suit, they also allege they were shorted six months’ pay. The suit said the protocol under Joe Paterno was that coaches dismissed without cause received an 18-month severance package that included full pay and benefits. Dismissed coaches would continue to be paid through the start of the next academic year in July, and then the 18-month severance would kick in, the suit alleged.
Paterno and Kenney were allegedly told this rule would apply to them if they were not retained by O’Brien. But instead of waiting until July 2012, the university started their severance clock immediately upon their dismissal in January 2012, robbing them of six months’ pay, the suit alleges.
Paterno and Kenney are seeking that back pay, along with loss of future earnings, compensation for emotional distress, punitive damage and attorney fees.