There’s a rift in the Penn State football family, linked to Dr. Paul Suhey’s bid for re-election to the university’s board of trustees.
A group of football lettermen has sent out a note to their colleagues, urging them to oppose Suhey because of the trustee’s role in the removal of Joe Paterno as coach following the Jerry Sandusky presentment in November 2011.
Suhey, a State College native and former star linebacker under Paterno, has been on the board for 12 years.
“We’re not happy about doing this,” said Brian Masella, one of 11 ex-players whose names appear on the letter. “This is sad. We’re sad. We’re angry. This is not something we wanted to do. We’re doing this with a heavy heart.”
Penn State All-American and ESPN football analyst Matt Millen countered: “I don’t think that letter expressed the opinions of all of the lettermen.”
Millen and others have come to Suhey’s defense.
“I don’t know all of the politics behind it,” Millen said Monday. “I know Paul. I know his character, his family. I know he tries to do the right thing. He would be the first guy I would vote for.”
The letter, titled “Success With Honor,” carried the names of lettermen Todd Blackledge (1982), Robert Capretto (’67), Tom Donchez (’74), Franco Harris (’72), Justin Ingram (2000), Christian Marrone (’97), Lydell Mitchell (’72), Michael Robinson (’04), Steve Smear (’69), Brandon Short (’99) and Masella (’74).
In the part, the letter reads: “We are compelled to step forward and oppose Paul Suhey’s re-election to the board. We take this action with the full understanding of the division this may cause amongst us.”
The letter chided the trustees for firing Paterno “without ever once talking with him,” and for not discussing or questioning the Freeh report, which said Paterno and other top Penn State officials hid Sandusky’s crimes against children for years.
“This was very tough for me to do, but I don’t think Joe’s been defended enough,” Smear said from Annapolis, Md. “Somebody other than Franco and a couple other guys needed to step out and say something.”
Masella, from his home in New Jersey, said Suhey’s recent statement to the CDT that Paterno was not technically fired, but instead was retired “three weeks early,” stoked the anger of some lettermen.
Masella said he has been in contact with hundreds of former players through email and social media, and said, “I’ve not gotten one negative reaction.”
A former tight end and punter, Masella said Suhey approached the lettermen’s club for support in his campaign “and we said no.”
Suhey and Vice Chairwoman Stephanie Diviney are running for re-election to alumni seats on the board. A third alumni seat is vacant, and has been so since Steve Garban stepped down last summer.
The alumni voting will begin April 10 and run through May 2. Electronic ballots may be requested by sending email to firstname.lastname@example.org, and providing complete name at time of gradutation, year of graduation, college and major, mailing address and current email address.
Suhey offered a statement following the distribution of the lettermen’s correspondence, but did not take questions about the matter. Suhey did say he did not seek the lettermen’s support in his re-election efforts.
“Joe Paterno taught us the importance of integrity,” Suhey said in the statement. “As a board member, my obligation is to my conscience. My responsibility is to do what I think is right for the university that I love.
“I had to make what I knew would be a stunningly unpopular decision but I believed then, as I believe now for many reasons, that it was the right decision. I understand that there are many people who believe it was the wrong decision, as much as I believe it was the right one. I am OK with that and I respect the opinions of others who disagree with me.”
Millen said of the letter writers: “I don’t share their view.”
“Some of the people who signed that letter are people I respect and have deep affinity for,” said Chuck Franzetta, a Boalsburg resident and a member of the 1968 Nittany Lions. “But this is wrong. Paul is one of our own.”
Masella was among the Penn State football lettermen who spoke at a trustees meeting March 15 in Hershey, challenging the Freeh findings and the board’s reactions.
“We want to turn over every single rock until we get the truth,” Masella said. “There are a lot of us who are not willing to move forward until that occurs. And I realize that rubs some people the wrong way.”
Masella said he believes the ex-players can work to restore Paterno’s legacy without taking away from efforts to support Sandusky’s victims and educate the public about child sexual abuse.
“We don’t think that truth needs to separated from the divisiveness of child abuse,” he said. “We’re saying both can be done.”
Masella plans to send information to other lettermen about participating in the alumni elections.
Millen said he believes that whether Suhey is re-elected or not, the angst will not fade quickly.
“Coach Paterno and I had a long talk shortly before he died,” Millen said. “I told him it was going to get worse before it got better, that it would take some time to sort it all out. I still believe that.”
Letterman Kevin Hart, of California, said the letter misrepresented Suhey’s views and attacked his character. Paterno, he said, would “want us to move on and help people begin to heal, not keep picking the scab off to continue this nightmare at Penn State.”
“I love Joe Paterno. He is largely the reason I am the man I am today,” Hart said. “But I also know Joe Paterno taught us to be better than those guys illustrated in that letter.”
Former players on both sides said the debate has damaged relationships forged through Penn State football over decades.
Paul Suhey is the son of Steve Suhey, a Nittany Lions All-American, and Virginia Suhey — whose father, Bob Higgins, played and coached at Penn State. Paul Suhey played under Paterno, as did two of his brothers, his son and a nephew.
“There’s two names that come to mind immediately when you think of Penn State football,” Franzetta said. “There’s Paterno. And there’s Suhey.”
Masella said the lettermen didn’t take their decision lightly.
He said: “Paul’s a brother of mine that I’ve now had to disown.”