New York Times: BOT Speaks for First Time

Late Wednesday night, Pete Thamel and Mark Viera of the New York Times published an article that addresses the Penn State Board of Trustee’s decision to fire legendary football coach Joe Paterno. The Times had spoken to thirteen of the thirty-two board members who, up until this point, have remained silent. For over three hours, the trustees recounted the tough decisions that led them to the termination of Paterno and former Penn State president, Graham Spanier. According to the article, “The board decided to share its story because it grew weary of hearing criticism, which included calls from alumni who started a group known as Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship in an effort to replace the current board members.”

The article begins with the trustees outrage over the actions of former president Graham Spanier, who testified before a grand jury last spring. The board insists that they were not told of any details before Jerry Sandusky’s arrest. However, during a board meeting last May, it’s been reported that “the board received a short briefing on Sandusky being under investigation by a grand jury.” The briefing, which was not open to the public, is estimated to have lasted five to ten minutes. John Surma, vice chairman of the trustees, mentioned that the briefing was so short that it was barely memorable. No questions were asked at the time.

Fast forward to Saturday, November 5th, the Board held an emergency conference call in which they discussed severe issues at hand. The Board of Trustees recalled Graham Spanier telling them, “We deal with crisis every day at this university, we won’t have a problem with this.” The trustees said they were shocked by the charges and were upset with Spanier’s response and subsequent endorsement of Tim Curley and Gary Schultz.

One trustee Mark H. Dambly said, “There was a lack of information being provided to us. We found out about it when the rest of the world found out about it.” The trustees say they were frustrated that Spanier, who was legally allowed to speak, didn’t reveal the information about the previous investigation. Another trustee Ira Lubert added, “He should have told us a lot more. He should have let us know much more of the background.”

The trustees met again the following night, most of them in person. At the conclusion of the meeting, the trustees were ready and eager to deliver a press release, expressing an undertaking of a full internal investigation and sympathy for the victims.

According to the interviews conducted, the trustees say that Spanier “altered” the release, saying that it was made as joint release from Spanier and the Board. Many trustees were also upset with the mitigated language used in the release by Spanier.

Lubert said, “I got up the next morning to read the press release online and it really didn’t reflect what we had come to the conclusion of as a board. I remember reading that, and I was sick. I then knew we had a serious problem.”

Soon after, board chariman Steve Garban said he told Spanier that he could no longer speak on behalf of the University. Garban explained, “I have to take some blame for this. I still sort of thought Graham could get us through this or help get us through this. And he participated in writing the press release, and after it came out, I knew it wasn’t right.”

On Tuesday morning, John Surma and Steve Garban had breakfast at the Nittany Lion Inn. Garban, who admitted that he had not read the grand jury presentment until the previous Sunday night, realized that he had fallen out of favor with the Board. He told Surma, “You need to take this over. And let’s agree — take it over.” Surma then handed out orders to the public relation firms working for Penn State. On that same day, Surma met with Penn State provost Rodney Erickson. Erickson insisted that he had no prior knowledge of the Sandusky allegations. Surma believed him, and explained to Erickson that he may be asked to assume the presidential role.

“If it comes to it, we may need you.”

Erickson replied with a simple, “O.K.”

The board had another conference call at 7 p.m. that night. Surma led the discussion and explained to the trustees that Erickson would be able to replace Spanier if needed. The Board seemed to have their minds made up on the presidency that night, but they hadn’t decided on Joe Paterno’s status yet. At the end of the call, Lubert said, “I’d like everyone to come together tomorrow and look people in the eye.”

The next night–that fateful night that every Penn Stater will always painfully remember for one reason or another–the trustees met at the Penn Stater Hotel. Governor Tom Corbett joined the meeting via telephone. The board first discussed Graham Spanier. The trustees reached a consensus about Spanier’s future. Earlier in the day, Spanier had attempted to submit his resignation to Surma and Garban, but they chose to decline. Garban felt that the board needed to take the action itself. So, just like that, Spanier was fired and Rodney Erickson was hired as interim president.

The next order of business was the status of Joe Paterno. Joe Paterno did not contact the board before the meeting, but the trustees believe it “would not have mattered.”

During the interviews, the trustees revealed what they said were three main reasons for firing Joe Paterno: “his failure to do more when told about the suspected sexual assault in 2002; what they regarded as his questioning of the Board’s authority in the days after Sandusky’s arrest; and what they determined to be his inability to effectively continue coaching in the face of ongoing questions surrounding the program.”

“To me, it wasn’t about guilt or innocence in a legal sense. It was about these norms of society that I’m talking about: that every adult has a responsibility for every other child in our community,” trustee Kenneth Frazier said.

Just before 10 p.m. as Paterno and his wife were climbing into bed, the associate athletic director for football Fran Ganter hand-delivered an envelope to the Paterno residence. There was a telephone number on a piece of paper inside the envelope.

Joe Paterno called the number. Garban answered and then passed the phone off to Surma.

John Surma told Joe Paterno, “The board of trustees has determined effective immediately you are no longer the football coach.”

Joe Paterno hung up.

After Surma and Garban sat silently in the Penn Stater, the phone rang again. It was Sue Paterno. “After 61 years, he deserved better,” she said. And then she, too, hung up.

Shortly after, the Board decided to hold a press conference. In eleven words, John Surma ended the career of the most influential figure in Penn State history.

“Joe Paterno is no longer head football coach, effective immediately.”

And just like that, it was all over.

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About the Author

Ryan Beckler

Ryan is a senior in the Smeal College of Business majoring in Marketing. He is a Lion Ambassador who loves giving tours to prospective students. His favorite activities include distributing news and consuming Chipotle.

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