Culture Series Part 2: Penn State, The Fall of an Empire

In the last segment to this series, I went over the cultural shift at the University of Oregon and how that led to their transformation from the basement of college football to a national powerhouse. This segment, I will address what happens when a culture becomes so massive that it becomes its own entity and even a nightmare. Penn State. If you have followed football at all in the last 50 years you would hear those two words and think of; Joe Paterno, Happy Valley, stark white uniforms with no nameplates on the back, tradition, winning, and now unfortunately scandal and disgrace.


Joe Paterno was born in 1926 in Brooklyn and later played college football at Brown. He was invited to become an assistant coach at Penn State in 1950 and promoted to head coach in 1966 when the head coach retired. Joe Paterno was beloved by Penn State. Firstly, he won. And as we know, winning tends to make people see you in a positive light. Joe ended up with 409 wins which left him as the winningest coach in college football history. He took Penn State to 37 bowl games and won 19 of them. Joe led them to 5 undefeated seasons and 2 national championships.

That’s a lot of winning. And the duration of time that he did it in was unheard of. He coached in some capacity from 1950-2011. That’s 61 years. He coached there longer than most of you have been alive. He survived when coaching at that level is now a carousel, and coaches are fired left and right, and will usually stay only a couple of years at a time. No one stays 61 years. That speaks volumes to the connection he had with that community.

Joe Paterno also prided himself on doing it “the right way”. He graduated more of his student athletes than any other coach on a yearly basis. He believed in the concept of team and that is why the nameplates were not placed on the back of the jerseys and they remained stark white or stark navy. It became an honor to sacrifice your personal identity to become part of this tradition. Happy Valley itself is a small community that influxes during the school year and college football season.

Penn State was the ultimate throw-back university. If there was ever an anti-Oregon, it would have been Penn State.

The entire Paterno family became Happy Valley royalty. Joe and his wife Suzanne had 5 children, all whom graduated from Penn State. His son Jay ended up coaching with him as a Quarterbacks coach. Indeed, if you walked around pretty much anywhere that area with the last name Paterno you were revered.


Jerry Sandusky was a defensive coordinator at Penn State from 1969 to 1999. Having spent 30 years coaching with the program alongside Paterno, Sandusky was also revered and was originally painted into the mural above, which depicts heroes in the Happy Valley community. He started his own non-profit organization called The Second Mile in 1977. This organization was created to help promote the well-being and development of underprivileged youth and foster children.

You can see an interview clip below of Sandusky talking about Second Mile:


Everything seemed quiet and well on the Happy Valley front until the day a sex abuse investigation finally went public on November 5th, 2011. On this day, prosecutors made public the further investigation into the role of Tim Curley (Penn State Athletic Director), Gary Schultz (Penn State Senior Vice President), and Sandusky, in light of 2010 testimony from former graduate assistant Mike McQuery. Mike McQuery was a graduate assistant at Penn State in 2001 and later promoted to an assistant coach. His 2010 testimony before a grand jury, stated that in 2001, he had witnessed Sandusky “horsing around” with young boy in the showers.

In order to understand how the hero culture lead to the dismantling of an empire, we must look further back. In 1999, Sandusky retired from coaching at Penn State but was given special privileges in that he could still return to campus and use its facilities whenever he liked. There were whispers that Sandusky was forced into retirement due to an investigation in 1998 where the mother of a young boy he met through Second Mile, filed a report with the police when Sandusky showered with her son and other young boys. The case got dropped when the judge decided there were no criminal acts and Sandusky agreed not to shower with children.

The fact that Sandusky was showering with children somehow escaped Penn State administrators when they gave Sandusky the clearance to be able to continue to use the school’s facilities.

In 2000, a janitor at Penn State, told his coworker that he saw Sandusky inappropriately touching another young boy. The janitors were afraid to lose their jobs so did not report it.

In 2001, McQuery met with Paterno and told him what he saw in the showers. Paterno in turn, told Curley and Schultz and the three decided what to do through a series of emails. The infamous emails would later be damning evidence of a cover up. They eventually decided that not reporting it to the police would be “humane”. And they inactivated Sandusky’s ability to use the school’s locker rooms and report the incident to The Second Mile.

Nothing is reported to the police. Nothing happens to Second Mile.

In 2009, a victim’s mother reports abuse to her school district and Sandusky is banned from that district.

Until that day of November 5, 2011, most of these events were kept under the rug. There was genuine fear about “rocking the boat”. Penn State was supposed be about doing things the “right way”. Here was a man who was in the mural of the Happy Valley idols. For 30 years he coached in the program. For many years after he was ingrained it. What would happen if someone had the courage to speak against one of those on the Mount Rushmore of Happy Valley? Look at all the wins he helped bring the program. Maybe if everyone is quiet, this will go away. This is a legacy we are talking about. Yet no one was thinking of the victims.

On November 5, Pandora’s Box was opened. The media storm was unrelenting. In an age where sensationalism sells, there is nothing more tantalizing then a saint turned sinner. Suddenly, the walls came in on Happy Valley and no one could escape it. Media swarmed into that little town like vultures sensing new carcasses. It was aggressive, intrusive, and overwhelming for people who lived there and anyone attached to Penn State. However, it was justified. There was an institutionalized effort of cover up. Once the rock was finally lifted, many rats who had been hiding underneath the Penn State banner, fled as the media chased them.

November 6, Curley and Schultz vacate their positions and the following day they are arraigned for making previous false statements to the authorities.

November 9, Paterno announces that he will retire at the end of the season. The Penn State board cannot wait however, and fires Paterno due to his seemingly inaction.

November 11, McQuery is placed on administrative leave.

November 13, The Second Mile leader resigns under accusations that the program helped Sandusky find his victims.

November 14, new reports come out of there being up to 10 victims, as far back as 1994.

November 21, Penn State hires an FBI investigator to look into events, seemingly trying to get in front of law suites and sanctions.

November 30, a civil law suite is filed against Sandusky, The Second Mile, and Penn State by a victim.

December 7, Sandusky is arrested and charged with 52 counts of sexual abuse.

January 6, Penn State hires Bill O’Brien as the new head coach.

January 22, Paterno dies after battle with cancer.

June 22, Sandusky is found guilty of 45 counts of sexual abuse.

In the span of 7 months an entire community and university are turned upside down, a new coach hired, an old coach dies, and Sandusky is convicted.

Where exactly did all this go wrong? Penn State was about the name on the front of the jersey being more important than the name on the back. That’s why there was no name plate. I completely agree with this philosophy. The problem is this philosophy did not apply to the leaders that implemented it. The players were taught about sacrifice and brotherhood but the leaders giving the speeches failed them. The leaders became so iconic that there was genuine fear.  The program means so much to that small community that the smallest threat to that existence proved too much for people to face.

As a society, we use sports as an outlet. We play them because we like competition. We coach them because we like competition. We watch them because we want an escape. The camaraderie one feels on a team is addicting. You become a family. Fans want to be a part of that family. Although fans don’t play or coach, the true fans have a passion that match the drive of anyone on their team. They become attached to their identity of being part of that program. People use their fandom as a way of escaping their daily lives which everyone can attest to, are stressful. Feeling like you are a part of something, especially something that is winning, is a sense of pride. When it’s your local team, you feel like when they win, you win. You can go back to your buddies and tease them about how much better your team and city is than theirs.

Usually, these things are completely healthy and fun.  However, there is a line to that as well and that’s littered with words like denial and delusion. I have had my share of reality checks to my fandom. When I was a kid, Barry Bonds was my favorite baseball player, as I am a big San Francisco Giants fan. When I was young, he was a repeat all-star, a huge bat, and had wheels in the outfield. He had a confidence about him I liked. I wanted to play softball like him. Then later I found out about the steroid use and that version of him I had in my head crashed down. I had a decision to make, believe the allegations or not. I took myself out of the rose colored glasses and admitted to myself that yes, he probably did use them. This of course made me sad, especially because I don’t think he needed to. There was a definite 2nd push in his career, probably due to the use, but I think he was a great player even before he used them and probably would have been successful without it. The point is, I had to push my bias away and have some perspective.

Not everyone is able to do this. Some become so intertwined with their fandom that they can’t break away from it to see the reality.

Curly, Schultz, and other administrators of Penn State also could not break away from their bias. Their bias was named success. They were addicted to the feeling of success and didn’t want it to end. They were not thinking of Sandusky when they chose to not go to the police. On the contrary, from what I understand no one really liked him. They were thinking of themselves and the program.

Paterno’s case is a bit more grey. Paterno did not himself physically hurt anyone. He did report it to his administration. Many people feel like this is enough to vindicate him. Many people feel like the 60 plus years of great work he put in to help people, is bigger then the mistakes he made. Other people are furious at Paterno because he should have also reported the events to the police. They are angry even further because he was supposed to represent “what was right” and the “Penn State way”. The very man that built the program on faith and morals, let them down.

I believe that Paterno’s involvement in these events are going be personal for everyone. Everyone is going to have their own opinion of him. I think that is OK. My personal opinion is that he was a good man, who made a horrible mistake in thinking that the program was bigger than these victims. I hold him responsible for this. I also think he did a lot of good in this world and do not think that should be taken away. We are all complex human beings who make mistakes that we will have to answer for at some point. At the end of the day, he too fell victim to his own bias and pride.

How do we prevent this from happening in the future? We need to believe in our team or business culture but always be willing to face flaws and events with perspective. The culture must be a moving target and a living entity that is willing to making changes when needed. The dangerous culture is the one that is stagnant and not willing to look to get better. Penn State had become a stagnant culture in love with its own tradition.

The NCAA dropped the hammer on the football program with a bowl ban, loss of scholarships, and penalties. Recently, they have relented on some these and the program has fought to regain its footing in the Big 10.  O’Brien added the nameplates on the back of the jerseys. As Penn State moves forward in its history, it will be interesting to see if they will be able to create a new culture.

In the next part of my series on culture, we will look at Southwest Airlines. Not only have they made it a point to make flying fun, they have developed an employee culture that people thrive in.






















Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s