Friday, July 13, 2012

Penn State: When Coaches are more Powerful than College Presidents

The Penn State scandal continues to unfold with the Freeh Report. The report basically confirms what everyone but true believers knew, Penn State leaders strongly pushed by Head Football Coach Joe Paterno ignored the heinous moral damage to young men done by one of the assistant coaches Jerry Sandusky. More importantly they dithered about the issue, ignored its moral evil and worried more about protecting the reputation of the university and their football program than ending the abuse of children that their own imprimatur made possible.

I have written about this before and most of the clamor at the moment replicates what has already been said. The question of what the NCAA can and should do will also unfold, but I want to address another issue that is not common but also not rare in intercollegiate sports, the role of Presidents in institutional control.

Intercollegiate athletic integrity depends upon Presidential control. The entire reform movement of the last twenty years and all the major increases in student welfare and academic progress has occurred because Presidents asserted control and grabbed it away from athletic directors and coaches. The entire process depends absolutely upon individual university presidents asserting strong control at their own campuses and ensuring both compliance with regulations but also that coaches abide by some reaonsable facsimile of commitment to students as well as athletes.

The Paterno case has reflected for years one of the major cracks in this approach. Under certain conditions coaches become far more powerful than the Presidents of the University. The coaches make more money, they have more visibility, they are treated as celebrity and in many ways they embody the reputation and status of the university. Universities have whole departments devoted to telling stories that prove how their coach embodies the best of the university's values. So we have the reputation machine behind Paterno. But Paterno's power was not alone.

It is now clear that Paterno's own efforts helped paralyze the efforts of Penn State senior administrators to address the issue.

Let's look at some other cases where several factors coalesce:
  • The coach has been very successful at winning games for a long period of time.
  • The coach has lived through several Presidents.
  • The coach has created not just immense support from fans but has cultivated strong relations with very powerful contributors and boosters.
  • The coach has become a symbol of the university and woven into its marketing and reputation.
  • This position means the coach is no longer accountable to anyone in the university hierarchy, only to winning and their own myth.

When these combine coaches amass immense independent power that often puts them beyond the power of the Presidents who feel trapped by boosters, contributors, media and even their boards of regents. Several other examples come to mind among them Bobby Bowden of Florida State,  Bobby Knight at Indiana, Rick Pitino at Louisville among others.

"When the season's over I'll let them know if I want to come back."79 year coach of the Florida State Seminoles Bobby Bowden informed the public who was boss two years ago. He was responding to the demand of the Jim Smith Head of the University's Board of Trustees that "Seminole Nation" had endured his failures "enough." Smith was a little more graphic, it's "sort of like you have to put your favorite dog down; you know its the right thing to do but you sure feel bad about it."

 Another member of the Board commented that she thought this was the business of the University President and Athletic Director--technically true but not likely in modern college athletics. The  University Presidents have largely lost the ability to determine celebrity and long term coach's fates. The Athletic Director and the Board of Trustees have more power but remain as paralyzed.  Just to clarify the Governor of Florida announced that he supported Bowden, considered him one of the greatest coaches of all time and wished him luck for the season. Joe Paterno, at that point another untouchable 82 year old football coach at Penn State, chimed in that Bowden should "decide what he wants to do."

When Rick Pitino decided to have sexual relations in a bar room, the President of Louisville slapped his wrist because the university depended upon its basketball team for whatever reputation it has. Bob Huggins at Cinncinnati ran through several Presidents who were helpless to stop his exploitation of student athletes and violation of rules. It took his own alcohol ruled self destruction to enable a President to get rid of him.

Jerry Tarkenian the basketball coach at UNLV put UNLV on the map. Its basketball team gained the school national presence and prime time visibility despite Tarkenian's blatant disregard for rules and graduating student athletes. At UNLV he got Chancellors fired who tried to fire him. Bobby Knight created an untouchable basketball dynasty at Indiana and the university tolerated and enabled two decades of vile and ruthless and boorish behavior from this paragon who helped cement Indiana's reputation. The phenonon is not common but so powerful that Myles Brand literally made his reputation for firing Bobby Knight as basketball coach at Indiana, but he faced outrage and demonstrations.

Hubris and success coupled with long tenure are ancient recipes for tyranny and tragedy. Men gain such prominence that others fear to remove them. As long as they win or do not do something morally horrendous, these coaches remain untouchable beyond the President's power. An iron triangle of boosters welded to coaches, welded to media welded to donors build unassailable positions that Presidents challenge at their peril.

So university Presidents tolerate or exonerate outlandish behavior like sex on bar tables, drunken driving, academic fraud and personal and public embarrassment. The University Presidents dither for fear of alienating donors, being being assaulted by the media or simply giving up huge marketing and media visibility of celebrity driven winning. The sad paradox of Paterno is that the President had been trying to get rid of him and could not.

The Greek tragedy of hubris and power ends predictably. Woody Hayes at Ohio State assaults a his own player on national TV. Arizona's great and untouchable coach Lute Olsen's  health, team and family life disintegrate while the University shuffled around trying to get him to step down with honor. Penn State has been trying to offer Joe Paterno an honorable way out for a decade, but he continued on impervious to blandishments and invulnerable with his booster, media and support. Now Penn State learns it has harbored moral evil and moral silence at its core values. 

Unable to protect accountability or dignity many Presidents wait for the final incident as in Knight, Hayes, or Huggin's implosions. Paterno represents the same sad pattern.

Often Presidents simply watch and wait for the team to  team lose  cohesion and winning, waiting for the boosters to finally tire and revolt. But by then it's too late. Presidents have ceded power over the program to boosters for the next choice. They set the precedent for Presidential impotence and booster primacy. The cycle will begin again.

I do not want to downplay the moral evil at Penn State, but I do want to highlight that the denouement fits a pattern of unaccountable coaches beyond the reach of presidents. 

A little Presidential courage could avoid the tragedy and support the integrity of athletics.

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