While the Penn State board of trustees didn’t take an expected vote Sunday to ratify NCAA sanctions, it did voice strong support for President Rodney Erickson’s actions leading up to the penalties.
Erickson received near-unanimous support Sunday for signing a consent decree with the NCAA that officials said saved the university from the “death penalty.”
His decision to approve the unprecedented NCAA penalties without getting full board approval drew the ire of some in the community, and appeared to cause a rift among some board members.
In response, the board held a meeting Sunday via teleconference, which the university said was to ratify the consent decree.
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That didn’t happen, however, because of a “technical legal issue,” according to board Chairwoman Karen Peetz.
The university’s charter requires 10 days’ written notice of a board meeting, while the trustees’ own bylaws require three days’ notice. Peetz said because of this discrepancy, “out of an abundance of caution,” the board would not take any formal action Sunday.
“Regardless of whether we vote, however, I would like to be clear on one thing,” Peetz said. “I absolutely support President Erickson and his decision to accept the consent decree as the only real option in the extraordinarily difficult circumstances and the choices we were presented.”
Those sentiments were echoed Sunday evening by the overwhelming majority of the trustees who participated in the teleconference.
The board appeared eager to present a united front after some members questioned Erickson’s authority to accept the sanctions without approval from the board as a whole.
Ryan McCombie, a State College resident and newly elected board member, asked the NCAA for a chance to submit an appeal in writing and argue the case in person before the Infractions Appeals Committee.
On Friday, however, he said he will hold off on pursuing the appeal or considering other legal actions.
Peetz said Sunday that because McCombie has decided to hold off on the appeal, a “formal vote may not be as necessary as we had initially anticipated.”
After the meeting, McCombie said in a statement that he agreed to temporarily suspend prosecution of his NCAA appeal to allow for further investigations by the board of trustees.
“While trustee McCombie fully supports President Erickson and his commitment to protecting the current and future interests of Penn State University, he still intends to challenge the unfair, unwarranted and unlawful actions of the NCAA and the excessive sanctions imposed,” the statement said.
Penn State public relations consultant Richard Edelman, who spoke Sunday, urged the board to back Erickson and fully accept the NCAA sanctions.
“The response by the university is now being clouded by some who are not aligned,” Edelman said. “We think that we have to stop looking backwards at decisions that cannot be undone. I believe if you do not, you will see a whole new round of stories in the media about board dysfunction.”
Vice Chairman Keith Masser and others seemed to take heed of that message. Masser said, “We need to stop looking back.”
“The board should find the wisdom to know the difference between the things we cannot change and the things we can change,” he said.
Member Anthony Lubrano said he wants to move forward, “but not at the price of our proud past.”
Lubrano, alone among the trustees, maintained criticism of the way Erickson handled the NCAA sanction process.
“I am deeply disappointed in the process to which Penn State agreed to the consent decree,” he said. “As a trustee, I was excluded from the process. Yet our head football coach (Bill O’Brien) was consulted. To me that seems ironic.”
According to McCombie’s now-suspended challenge of the sanctions, the NCAA failed to follow its own procedures.
The NCAA didn’t conduct its own investigation, and instead relied on the findings of the Freeh report, which the university commissioned. That investigation faulted former head coach Joe Paterno and three top administrators for trying to cover up child sex abuse by Jerry Sandusky.
Along with a $60 million penalty, the sanctions include the removal of Nittany Lion wins from 1998 to 2011, banning the team from bowl games for four years and cutting the number of football scholarships the university can offer.
NCAA compliance expert Gene Marsh, who acted as a liaison between Penn State and the NCAA, said that Erickson faced a “stark” choice — accepting the sanctions or the death penalty.
Erickson said Sunday it was the hardest decision of his 40-year professional career.
Erickson said NCAA President Mark Emmert told him the NCAA board was shocked by the Sandusky trial and the Freeh report. The NCAA, Erickson said, “wanted blood.”
Emmert offered a “take it or leave it proposition,” Erickson said. The discussions lasted about a week before Erickson signed the consent agreement. He was allegedly told if the consent agreement leaked to the press, the deal was off the table.
Through the week, Erickson updated the board of trustees Executive Committee, and consulted with Penn State legal counsel.
Counsel specifically looked at Erickson’s legal authority during those discussions.
“This was not an afterthought in response to concerns raised by others,” said university general counsel Stephen Dunham. “It was part of our analysis from the beginning.”
Dunham said Sunday that Erickson “clearly had the legal authority to sign the decree,” and added that there is legally no need for a vote by the board on the matter.
Gov. Tom Corbett, who participated in the conference call, said Erickson “faced a dilemma of two very undesirable choices,” and “chose the lesser of two severe punishments.”
Corbett said he believes the NCAA punishment went beyond the “mission and oversight authority of the organization,” but said that’s an argument for another day.
“It became clear the university administration in my mind did everything within its power to work to mitigate the damage to Penn State, the region of central Pennsylvania and its economy,” Corbett said.
Matt Carroll can be reached at 231-4631. Follow him on Twitter @Carrollreporter