by Geoff Rushton
Former Penn State President Rodney Erickson said Monday in Centre County Court that he ultimately decided in November 2011 to place former assistant football coach Mike McQueary on paid administrative leave out of concern for the safety of McQueary and others.
Testifying on the sixth day of trial in McQueary’s civil lawsuit against the university, Erickson said the school had received “a stream of threats” after it was revealed McQueary was the unnamed graduate assistant who told an investigating grand jury he saw Jerry Sandusky abusing a boy in a locker room shower in 2001.
Erickson called the emails and phone calls “some of the most awful, vile things I have ever seen.”
McQueary, a former wide receivers coach, is suing Penn State on claims that former Athletic Director Tim Curley and Vice President Gary Schultz misrepresented how they would handle his 2001 report; that former President Graham Spanier’s statement of support for Curley and Schultz caused harm to his reputation; and that the cumulative effect of Penn State’s actions, including placing him on leave and not renewing his contract, was retaliatory and harmed his ability to find employment.
But Erickson said the decisions to keep him from coaching in the Nov. 12, 2011 Penn State game against Nebraska and to place him on leave were protective, not retaliatory, a notion that has been a steady through-line in Penn State’s defense for the past week.
He said that university staff and administrators shared with him a number of threats against the university and McQueary. The threats exhibited by the defense indicated anger at McQueary for the perception he had not done enough in 2001 to stop Sandusky, who was convicted in 2012 on 45 counts of child sex abuse. Erickson said the university police chief at the time, Steve Shelow, informed him security measures were put in place to protect McQueary and his family and others at Penn State.
“I thought it was the best way to keep Mike safe and minimize any chance for a disturbance otherwise,” Erickson said.
McQueary concluded his testimony on Monday morning after testifying for most of the day on Friday. He said police never came to him to discuss threats or any protective measures they were putting into place.
“One of aggravating things about this is if I was so threatened why didn’t they ever come talk to me?” McQueary said. “If you think you’re getting death threats, wouldn’t you come talk to the guy who’s going to die?”
He added that he was not frightened and that until he was placed on leave he went to work and did not ask for any special protection.
While the jury of nine women and three men will decide on the defamation and misrepresentation claims, specially-presiding Judge Thomas Gavin will decide on McQueary’s whistle-blower claim. With the jury dismissed for lunch, Gavin asked Erickson what he knew about the state’s whistle-blower statute and how it informed his decisions in 2011 and 2012.
Erickson, who became university president when Spanier was removed at the same time Joe Paterno was removed as head coach, said he had a limited understanding, but was advised by university counsel that McQueary was “a state witness and we had to be very careful about adhering to the letter of the law.” That included, he said, making sure McQueary received what was owed to him.
McQueary would remain on paid leave until his contract expired on June 30, 2012. Prior to that, in January 2012, Bill O’Brien was hired as Paterno’s successor. McQueary says he was the only coach who was not invited to interview with O’Brien. He said Monday that colleagues told him O’Brien was given a list of coaches from Paterno’s staff to interview and McQueary was the only staff member not on it.
On cross-examination by Penn State attorney Nancy Conrad, McQueary said he didn’t inform anyone at Penn State that he was interested in interviewing with O’Brien, added that he did not trust university administrators and that “everyone knew I loved Penn State and wanted to coach at Penn State.”
The only assistants retained by O’Brien were defensive line coach Larry Johnson and linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden. Last week, former associate athletic director Fran Ganter said a group of players came to him and said they had a request that the new coach keep those two on staff.
Erickson testified that at a meeting with O’Brien he suggested keeping on Johnson and Vanderlinden for continuity. “They were the two coaches that had premier national reputations,” he said.
Erickson said he had no involvement with McQueary’s contract ending, after which McQueary did not immediately begin to receive severance payments. Erickson said he learned about the issue in August and that he recommended McQueary receive the payments, as the other assistants had when they were terminated following O’Brien’s hire.
“I thought it was the right thing to do,” he said.
McQueary began receiving 18 months of severance in late September 2012.
Monday’s testimony concluded with Cleveland State Athletic Director John Parry testifying as an expert witness for McQueary. Parry prepared a report evaluating the effect of Spanier’s statement and Penn State’s subsequent handling of McQueary on his coaching career.
Parry echoed McQueary’s claim that Penn State’s treatment of him had poisoned his reputation and prospects of finding another job. He said while keeping McQueary out of one game for safety concerns made sense, he did not believe that was a valid reason to remove McQueary entirely from his job duties.
“They sent a message to every other school in the country that Mike McQueary did something wrong,” Parry said.
In reviewing McQueary’s performance reviews, coaching accomplishments and Penn State football’s status prior to November 2011, Parry estimated McQueary likely would have become and offensive coordinator or head coach in the next five to seven years. He also said McQueary is qualified to coach a number of positions.
Conrad, however, questioned both Parry’s expertise and conclusions. She noted that Cleveland State does not have a football program and he has not been involved with a school with a football team in 10 years. She pointed out that his prior experience with football came at Butler and Brown, both of which play at the FCS level. His last involvement with an open search for a football coach came in the 1990s.
Parry’s report, meanwhile, cited no athletic director or coach who chose not to hire McQueary.
Testimony will resume at 9 a.m. Tuesday in Bellefonte.