The Complicated Legacy of David Joyner
There might be no job in sports at any level as hapless as the collegiate athletic director. When things are going well for a program, all credit is awarded to the players and coaching staff. When things are going poorly, the athletic director is usually near the top of the impatient fan’s laundry list of reasons.
Essentially, the job of the modern athletic director is to hire competent coaches, make sure the money keeps flowing in, and to stay out of the headlines and fans’ shitlists. For soon-to-be-former Penn State Athletic Director David Joyner, the latter point was always out of reach by default. Few actors in the Sandusky mess have proven to be as polarizing as Joyner — his most vocal detractors casually liken him to Judas Iscariot, while his supporters lionize him as nothing less than a mensch, the most nauseatingly crowning him as “The man who saved Penn State football.“
While he certainly wasn’t the man who saved Penn State football, an alumnus who gave decades of his life to serve Dear Old State probably doesn’t deserve to be called a “cueball head” either. Like most characters that emerged out of the November 2011 mess, the real story is complicated and unfit for the 140-character polemics of the Penn State Twitter pundit universe (perhaps better known as Gomorrah).
When it’s all said and done, Joyner will have served as athletic director for 987 days. Before you liken the guy to a biblical villain, let’s look at his entire résumé.
- The point Joyner supporters recite ad nauseam is the fact that he hired two great football coaches in less than three years. It is no doubt the crowning achievement of Joyner’s reign and for good reason. During the most difficult of circumstances, Joyner was able to find Bill O’Brien to lead one of the most inspiring seasons in Penn State history. All signs point to O’Brien’s successor as being just as capable of galvanizing the fanbase — and likely even more so. If there’s one thing Joyner has excelled at, it’s coaching hires, and that’s probably the most important part of the job anyway.
- Joyner used his carte blanche to do all kinds of cool shit with venues that Tim Curley was unwilling or unable to try. Return to Rec, the Penn State wrestling match in the BJC, and the Ireland game are all at least somewhat attributable to Joyner.
- Penn State football has four games with Pitt lined up in the next decade — something fans had been clamoring for since the series ended in 2000. Joyner headed an effort to get the bastards from the West back on our schedule for good.
- Joyner forced out deadweight coaches like Robbie Wine, who posted a dismal 228-261 record in nine baseball seasons, and women’s tennis coach Dawna Denny-Wine, who amassed only a 50-86 record in her seven seasons at the helm. Both probably hung around way too long under Curley.
- Penn State’s athletic teams are as successful as they’ve ever been. Collectively, our teams have won 16 Big Ten titles over the last two years — the most in the conference — and four national championships. While the players ultimately deserve the lion’s share of the credit for the wins, if there was a falloff our teams’ success on the field, there would surely be a healthy dose of criticism coming Joyner’s way. It’s only fair that the head of the athletic department shares some of the credit for the successes of its teams.
- Joyner unceremoniously and opaquely fired the best college fencing coach in the country over what was ostensibly a small ball of tape and a big misunderstanding. While not all of the details are public, Joyner and the university have done nothing to counter the story that Emmanuil Kaidanov was fired because he yelled at one of his assistants over the reporting of what turned out to be a non-incident involving drugs that didn’t exist. Kaidanov is now suing the university, and his son is not holding back any punches against Joyner or the athletic department.
- Joyner released a statement after his boss signed the NCAA consent decree saying, in part, “[I] agree that the culture at Penn State must change,” which is of course total bullshit. And Joyner knows it is total bullshit, even if he’s too proud to admit it. When the university needed leaders to stand up for its culture — and there was no better ambassador than Joyner, as a former two-sport athlete and distinguished alumnus who stayed involved with the university — all we got was this wimpy statement that helped irreparably shape the national narrative that Penn State harbors a bunch of demented child-abuse sympathizers.
- Joyner pissed off Penn State’s most beloved student-athlete to the point that he felt compelled to go on-the-record for a book about how much he hated the guy only months after graduation. I don’t really care if Joyner gave Michael Mauti a dirty look for drinking a beer on an airplane, but there’s little doubt — both from John Bacon’s book and conversations I’ve had on background with various players — that Joyner had very little respect from the team for his perceived unwillingness to stand up for them in the face of the sanctions, or his reported egocentrism at the TicketCity Bowl meeting. While players don’t need to like you to be an effective AD, it’s certainly alarming when the de fact0 face of the university in Mauti doesn’t respect you.
- Whether you believe the theories that Joyner had a personal vendetta against former team physician Wayne Sebastianelli or not, there’s no doubt that there is at least some shred of truth in Sports Illustrated’s hatchet job from last May about the team’s ill-equipped medical program and Joyner’s role in forcing out the ubiquitously respected Sebastianelli.
- Joyner’s ascent into the athletic director role was textbook cronyism. He had no prior athletic administration experience and was essentially appointed to a $400,000 job by his friends who he worked with on the Board for more than a decade. While this speaks to the greater problem of corruption in the Board of Trustees that has existed for decades, I’m not willing to criticize Joyner for taking something offered to him. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t do the same.
- Joyner voted to fire Joe Paterno without any sort of due process or the dignity that a man like Paterno deserved. This has little to do with Joyner’s tenure as athletic director, but it’s likely the reason for most of his critics, whether they’ll admit it or not. For many alumni, this is a decision of no return, save for an Al Clemens-style mea culpa. Joyner was a captain and All-American on Paterno’s 1971 team; as a product of the “Grand Experiment,” it’s a fair argument to make that Joyner had an even greater responsibility to stick up for his old coach than other less athletically gifted trustees. Unfortunately, for this reason alone, Joyner was doomed from the start with the most vocal sect of the alumni base.
I’ll say this about David Joyner; in my five or six interactions with him, in both journalistic and informal settings, he has been nothing but kind and respectful (which is more than I can say for some Penn State administrators). He leaves the athletic department in a good place, which is a significant feat, all things considered. And when James Franklin wins a national championship in the next decade, I hope he sends Joyner a ring.
I’ve listened to Joyner one-on-one, away from the airbrushed inauthenticity of the Penn State PR machine, describe what he calls a “Penn State Heart” — the qualities that bond us all together as Penn Staters, the indescribable feeling that makes the hair stand up on our arms when we pass the Lion Shrine and realize what it stands for. It’s not my story to tell here, but I wish more people had the chance to hear it from him. Maybe it would change some minds.
Still, the list of mishaps is impossible to ignore, too long and damaging to simply award a free pass. He can’t take back the culture statement, he can’t unfire Joe Paterno, and he can’t go back and look the other way when Mauti scavenges the Penn State private jet’s refrigerator for a cold one, and the university is worse for it. I know more than one Penn Stater I respect — be it Kaidanov, Sebastianelli, Mauti, or scores of others — is celebrating yesterday’s announcement.
There’s no arguing that it was time to go. Eric Barron deserves a clean slate, free of unnecessary controversy and distractions. Make no mistake about it — David Joyner was part of the leadership problem at Penn State and the administration’s universal unwillingness to stand up for the institution to the press and a national audience during the most crucial moments of the scandal, and his legacy will pay the price for it. But great people — great Penn Staters — are capable of doing bad things. That’s one thing I’ve learned since November 2011. Perhaps that’s David Joyner — a great Penn Stater who made some mistakes, sure, but took a tough job when his Alma Mater called him to serve Her (and he left us with two great football coaches to boot).
“I am honored to have served,” Joyner told Chris Adamski of the Tribune Review after the news came out about his imminent resignation. “I would say my intent has always been honorable. People may disagree, but they don’t know what was in my heart.”
At modern Penn State where so many of our leaders fall into a robotic, impersonal — yes, heartless — abyss, honorable intent is a good start. At least David Joyner had that.