Commentary: The Penn State Saga and Lessons for Northwestern
by Jonathan Hodges

The situation involving Jerry Sandusky's child abuse and subsequent cover-up by Penn State administrators seems to be coming to a quick conclusion after Sandusky was found guilty, Louis Freeh's PSU-commissioned report on PSU involvement was issued, and both the NCAA and Big Ten came down with tough sanctions against the football program. This article will not rehash the events leading to the situation or the aftermath, but instead will focus on the broader picture and what it means for other college football programs, particularly Northwestern.

It Could Happen Anywhere

First off, to those in the Northwestern community who say "it can't happen here," the fact is that it happened at a school where most would have said the same thing before November 5, 2011, and most other college football fans across the nation would agree. PSU was home of the "grand experiment" by Coach Joe Paterno, which included fielding a successful football team that also lived by high ideals off the field, including a clear objective to graduate its football players (something that was and is not necessarily a priority at other "football factories").

Paterno was considered to be an upright and moral man (see his multimillion donation to the PSU library amongst other things) and his longevity as a football coach and success in that field were second-to-none. In his 46 year tenure as head coach, his winning rate was 0.749 and included five undefeated seasons and two national titles. Penn State grew in size and stature and became a national power both on the field and in the classroom; the institution was admitted into the Big Ten conference in the early 1990's and joined the prestigious AAU on the academic side. Unfortunately all of that eventually granted Paterno entirely too much power over not just the football program, but the school as a whole.

This led to a situation where the chain of command essentially ran through Joe Paterno, even though he was theoretically employed by the athletic director, with the athletic director reporting to the school president being accountable to the board of trustees. Instead, the AD and President were beholden to Paterno, exemplified in the early 2000's when they came to Paterno with a request for him to retire that he handily dismissed. There have also been accusations of Paterno circumventing the discipline process involving off-field behavior of his players. Finally, and most importantly, this led to the cover-up of the Sandusky accusations from as far back as 1998 which allowed crimes against children to continue for over a decade.

Note that even Sandusky himself was revered in the community, particularly given his position in the Second Mile children's charity. Unfortunately that ended up being a crooked front to his criminal activities.

Nothing close to this has ever happened at Northwestern, but the seeds are certainly there. Pat Fitzgerald is highly regarded in the Northwestern community and around the nation for what his team does both on and off the field. He holds a high place in NU football history for what he did on the field in the mid-1990's renaissance of the program and also for fielding a competitive team as a coach that includes a program-record active four game bowl streak. NU also holds itself to extremely strict academic standards as well as rules for off-field behavior and an expectation of community service.

All of this plus the expectation from the Northwestern community that the school and football program do things the "right way" and that puts NU in a very similar situation that PSU was in, which was certainly a factor in the decision to cover-up that situation. While Fitz doesn't have nearly the same level of unofficial authority that Paterno had after decades on the job, one could certainly envision Fitz making that ascent if he brings further success (particularly Big Ten championships) to the 'Cats during what should be a career that spans a double-digit number of years.

Finally, Northwestern is not without blemishes: there was the infamous Dennis Lundy point shaving scandal of the early 1990's, there have been off-field incidents over the years, and, worst of all, there was the death of Rashidi Wheeler during a preseason conditioning drill in 2001. In all cases NU responded and did so in a relatively open matter, but if the program were in the middle of a successful run where they were competing for conference championships, would they do the same thing? The temptation of a cover-up is certainly there and the cover-up is what this whole quandary is about.

Northwestern's Past

One major obstacle in a similar incident occurring at Northwestern is its own past: the Dark Ages. After 1971's 7-4 season, the Wildcats went 24 years until another winning campaign, and that span included the infamous 34 game losing streak ("The Streak") during which NU became the laughing stock of the conference, and possibly even major college football. Northwestern's administration, led by then-president Bob Strotz, certainly brought this on themselves by de-emphasizing athletics. They did this most directly by essentially underfunding the program, especially relative to its Big Ten competition.

Before that, NU fielded a mostly competitive program that, while not as successful as the top tier Big Ten programs (Ohio State and Michigan), they found success from time to time and would have gained more recognition if not for the bowl restrictions at the time that did not allow the Big Ten to have more than one team in a bowl game (the Rose Bowl). But the aforementioned underfunding played a big role in putting an end to that relative success: Ara Parseghian was allowed to leave to coach at Notre Dame, and his successor, Alex Agase, was allowed to head to coach at Purdue; both led NU to multiple winning seasons.

While academic restrictions along with funding constraints due to the school's size and private nature have and will likely always be in place at Northwestern, it was clear that the NU administration made a conscious decision to prevent on-field success by keeping resources away from the football program.

Eventually, this mindset began to subside when NU started getting small tastes of success (Dennis Green's teams ended The Streak and won 3 games one season during which he won Coach of the Year for the conference, although he too would leave the program) which eventually led to the hiring of Gary Barnett. Barnett, of course, turned around the program and that has led to sustained support from the community as well as the administration (who were essentially newcomers). This has, in turn, led to a sustained competitiveness on the field (nine bowl berths and three conference titles) since the turnaround in 1995.

But the impact of the Dark Ages lingers, most notably in the attitude of the Northwestern community. The vast majority of NU students and alumni prioritize academics and do not believe in a "win at any cost" culture. The Dark Ages taught members of the NU community who were around during that time what the priorities were, and while some of the on-field results still haunt the program (The Streak), it certainly serves as a reminder to the priorities of the school. Although NU will no longer starve its athletic programs of funds in order to stave off success, the end priority of academics will remain in its pole position.


Although not a problem now, the potential is always there for winning football games to be such a high priority that transgressions are allowed to occur and are subsequently covered-up. Northwestern has never been a football powerhouse, but the seeds are certainly there to allow a successful football program to overtake other priorities, and NU must be vigilant to prevent that from happening. If there is one benefit of the Dark Ages, it is that the NU community generally has a good perspective and has its priorities in order regarding academics versus athletics and the true intention of higher learning.

The NCAA certainly hopes that the punishment sends a message out to all schools that crimes and violations are not be be allowed to occur and/or covered-up to preserve a football program. This is certainly a strong message, although I continue to believe that the only way to truly change priorities on a national level is for the NFL to start its own minor league. Considering that is extremely unlikely, though, if schools maintain a proper chain of authority: coach to AD to president to board to community, and clearly prioritize academics over athletics (which I believe NU continues to do and I wholeheartedly agree with), then the most egregious situations, like this, can be prevented. Finally, no school is perfect and the best thing that a school can do is to follow the chain of accountability and admit transgressions followed by changes to help prevent future recurrences.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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jhodges is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com.  His commentary and game analyses appear regularly during the season and occasionally in the offseason.