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March 8, 2013

Column: Freeh recommendation defies logic

In the March 1 quarterly report on the progress of the athletics integrity agreement, imposed on Penn State as part of the NCAA sanctions as a result of the Freeh investigation recommendations, former United States Senator George Mitchell revealed that Penn State passed a new personnel policy on Jan. 14 requiring national searches for the hiring of all head coaches, associate athletic directors and the athletic director.

But in his column in the January issue of the printed edition of Blue White Illustrated, contributing writer Lou Prato wrote that this specific Freeh recommendation was completely unnecessary because national searches for those positions have been going on for several years:

By Lou Prato
Special to Blue White Illustrated


As readers of this column know, I have little respect for the Freeh report, which is being used by the NCAA to support its unprecedented sanctions against the Penn State football team. It is being generous to use the term "deeply flawed" in describing what Louis Freeh and his committee produced after its so-called "independent" investigation.

Of the 120 recommendations in the report, however, there is one particular and obscure recommendation buried deep in the 500-page document that is ludicrous. One has to wonder how Freeh even included it. This concerns the hiring of the head coaches for Penn State's 31 athletic teams.

Freeh Recommendation 5.3 on page 139 states:

"Conduct national searches for key positions, including head coaches and Associate Athletic Director(s) and above."

This recommendation supposedly came about because other parts of the Freeh report claimed the "Penn State Culture" allowed the athletic department to "live by their own rules," defying university policy and procedures. Yet, once again, nowhere in the Freeh report is there a shred of evidence that Penn State has not been conducting national searches for head coaches or associate athletic directors.

Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, the independent monitor hired by the NCAA to ensure that Penn State complies with the recommendations of the Freeh report, stated in his first progress report, released Nov. 30, that this recommendation is only one of 12 that the athletic department has not yet begun. The obvious reason is that the recommendation is fraudulent.

National searches for Penn State's head coaches have intensified for at least seven years - long before the arrest of Jerry Sandusky and the ensuing investigation by Freeh. In fact, of the 24 current head coaches, only five had direct Penn State connections prior to their hiring, and they have served the university well.

Three are Penn State graduates who are longtime coaches of successful Nittany Lion Olympic sports teams: Char Morett (1979), field hockey since 1987; Mark Pavlik (1982), men's volleyball since 1995; and Randy Jepson (1982), an assistant in men's gymnastics for six years before becoming head coach in 1991.

The only other head coach who is a Penn State grad is women's golf coach Denise St. Pierre (1983). She was an assistant for four years before being promoted in 2001. The fifth coach, John Hargis, graduated from Auburn in 1999 but was an assistant coach for men's and women's swimming from 2003 to '06. He returned to Penn State as head coach in 2008.

Morett's field hockey teams have been in the NCAA tournament 23 of her 26 years, losing the championship game in 2002 and reaching the quarterfinals this most recent season after winning the Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles.

Since Pavlik became the men's volleyball head coach, his teams have perennially been in the NCAA Final Four. His 2008 team won the national title, and when the Nittany Lions won it in 1994, Pavlik was just finishing his five-year stint as an assistant under Tom Peterson.

Jepson has continued to build upon Hall of Fame coach Gene Wettstone's legacy by winning NCAA titles in 2000, 2004 and 2007. He has now stretched Penn State's record-setting number of championships to 12.

Ten years earlier, if Freeh had recommended that Penn State was too insular in its hiring of head coaches, he might have had a point. In the 2002-03 academic year, there were seven more head coaches with previous ties to Penn State (a total of 12 in 29 sports), and four of them were graduates.

Since then, national searches have led directly to the hiring of head coaches without previous Penn State connections in men's and women's basketball, men's and women's soccer, men's and women's lacrosse, baseball, wrestling, women's gymnastics and the newest varsity sports - men's and women's ice hockey. This list does not include Bill O'Brien, the head football coach, who was hired in January following Sandusky's arrest and the firing of Joe Paterno.

The success that these coaches have achieved since their hiring is a matter of record, and it's all positive. Given time, some or all of them may become as accomplished as the Penn State graduates like Morett, Pavlik and Jepson, or the non-Penn Staters like women's volleyball coach Russ Rose and men's and women's fencing coach Emmanuil Kaidanov, both of whom have won multiple NCAA championships. Certainly, even after just three years, wrestling's Cael Sanderson already fits into that category with his back-to-back NCAA championships, unprecedented by an East Coast team.

Now, let's look at the associate athletic directors. In 2002-03, there were three, not counting the one in charge of fundraising who reported to Old Main and athletics. All had previous ties to Penn State before being named to the position.

By the fall of 2011, those three associate athletic directors had retired, but the number of associate athletic director positions had increased to eight. Three had been promoted from within the department; two had come from another university division; and three came from national searches, including Penn State graduate Greg Myford (1986). Myford returned to campus in November 2004 after nearly 20 years of marketing experience in professional sports before becoming the associate athletic director of business relations and communications.

What's significant is the two newest associate athletic directors had no connection to Penn State.

Matt Stolberg, a graduate of Duquesne (1990), had extensive experience at Michigan, Michigan State and Northwestern when he was hired in January 2010 as associate athletic director for compliance and student affiliate services. Furthermore, the position had been upgraded to associate athletic director after the retirement of John Bove, a former assistant coach under Paterno who was an assistant athletic director for compliance for nearly 20 years.

Charmelle Green became associate athletic director and senior woman administrator in June 2011, succeeding Sue Delaney-Sheetz, who had won two national championships when she was Penn State's women's lacrosse coach in the 1980s. Green, a Utah grad and one-time softball player and coach, had previously spent six years in Notre Dame's athletic administration.

After those two hires, the position of associate athletic director for administration was eliminated with the sudden dismissal of Mark Sherburne, a former Penn State football player and 21-year employee, for reasons that have not been explained by acting athletic director Dave Joyner.

If Freeh's investigation was as thorough as he claimed, his investigators should have been aware of Penn State's hiring trends. One can surmise the exclusion of this fact in his report was to rationalize his sweeping criticism of what he called the "Penn State Culture." The culture supposedly allowed the athletic department to "live by their own rules," and defy university policy and procedures. In fact, Freeh went even further on page 139 of his report, stating that "there was little personnel turnover or hiring from outside the university and strong internal loyalty."

It also seems to me that his recommendation about national searches and his comment on hiring practices are part of Freeh's effort to support his insinuation that former athletic director Tim Curley nurtured this allegedly defiant culture and insistence on internal hiring. Yet Curley, a former Penn State walk-on football player who rose through the athletic department to become its leader in 1994, is responsible for the change in hiring strategy and philosophy that led to the arrival of all those associate athletic directors and head coaches, except for O'Brien.

The Freeh report also turned up absolutely no evidence during Curley's tenure that "there was little personnel turnover" in the department. I doubt Freeh's people searched through even an objective sampling of the hundreds of past and present employee files since 1998, the year of Sandusky's first known incident, to make such an assessment. As he did with most of his report, Freeh relied strictly on hearsay and unsworn comments by select witnesses.

According to a highly placed source, of the 350 or so employees in the Penn State athletic department in 2010-11 school year, approximately 50 had been there for 10 years or more and nearly 20 others had transferred from positions elsewhere in the university. About 115 had come from outside of Penn State, leaving perhaps some 165, many of them in lower-paid staff and auxiliary positions, whose backgrounds are not clear.

If one eliminates the head and assistant coaches, associate athletic directors, other senior administrators and some staffers brought in by new head coaches, I would bet much of the department's workforce is comprised of people who are natives or longtime residents of Centre County and the six adjacent counties. Or maybe they graduated from Penn State and wanted to work for their alma mater. Furthermore, this is a rural area, and I am sure turnover isn't as prevalent as it might be in a metropolitan area like Indianapolis or Seattle, because jobs aren't as plentiful.

I also doubt Penn State is any more insular or far different in its hiring and turnover than the average college of its size, such as Washington, or even smaller schools like Connecticut and Louisiana State.

Certainly, there are a lot of longtime employees in a department of some 350 people - just as there are in any organization. Loyalty, hard work and institutional knowledge are treasured, and promotions from within are encouraged. Yes, new blood and new ideas are always needed to modernize the organization and make it more productive. But that doesn't mean every new hire with an outside perspective is helpful, and sometimes it is detrimental to the greater good. (Example No. 1: Vicky Triponey, the former vice president of the university's office of student affairs.) And continual turnover is usually bad for an organization.

Since Freeh and NCAA president Mark Emmert were so ignorant or blasť about the athletic department's personnel situation, one also has to wonder about Mitchell's knowledge. After working in Washington, D.C., for 13 years, I am suspicious of career politicians and their staffs, but I'll give the former senator the benefit of the doubt.

However, there was something missing in Mitchell's November progress report that bothered me. Three weeks before the report was issued, Penn State released its own status report on Freeh's recommendations. On page 19, under the box entitled "In Progress & On Track" is this statement about Freeh's recommendation 5.3:

"The University's hiring policies are being revised to provide for national searches for candidates for head coaching positions and positions in Intercollegiate Athletics with the titles of Associate Athletic Director and above, with exceptions as approved by the President of the university." (The italics are mine.)

I have scoured the Freeh report and see no mention of any exceptions in recommendation 5.3. But, as the old saying goes, there are exceptions to everything.

This must be heartening to Joyner, the former Penn State All-America football player who has been criticized by a large segment of alumni and fans for his involvement in the firing of Paterno and his role as a member of the board of trustees.

Joyner has indicated that he might be interested in removing "acting" from his title, and why not? (Editor's note: "acting" was removed from Joyner's title in late January.)

But if the next Penn State president doesn't conduct an "extensive" national search for the next "official" athletic director, would Freeh and Emmert even care? Their dirty work is already done.



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