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June 17, 2014

Column: Complicated legacy awaits Joyner

The email's subject line was direct enough.

"Joyner retires, Penn State launches national search for athletic director"

Following a report by PennLive.com veteran journalist Dave Jones on Tuesday afternoon, Penn State released details revealing athletic director David Joyner's announced decision to retire from the university, effective Aug. 1 at the latest.

Though no replacement has been named, nor even suggested beyond Teddy Greenstein's Chicago Tribune report that Penn State has interest in Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips, the news comes as no surprise following more than two years of mixed emotion tied to Joyner's tenure with the Nittany Lions.

The onset of his time as "acting athletic director," of course, has much to do with the poor perception of Joyner's role at Penn State.

Without rehashing the entire saga, as a former member of Penn State's board of trustees, in the immediate aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal and fallout that led to Tim Curley's removal from the position, Joyner was quickly plugged into the role by the board.

Considering Penn State's options at the time, Joyner's complete inexperience as an athletic director was nullified by the perceived toxicity of the university as a whole. The intensity of the fallout masked the inherent flaw in awarding a lucrative job to a member of the board that had ousted the previous guy.

Weeks passed with no successor named - partly due to missed advances on sought-after candidates - but the eventual hiring of Bill O'Brien as head coach proved to be a largely successful decision.

Yet, as months passed and the NCAA leveled its sanctions against the program in the summer of 2012, O'Brien would uncomfortably step into a role as a political leader for the entire university. Though the concept of a head football coach being the most visible proponent of a university is hardly foreign, due to a complete absence of other strong public leadership in the aftermath of the sanctions, O'Brien had little choice but to bear a significant mantle of responsibility to fight the national narrative being leveled against the program.

Considering all that was at stake for Penn State, not only as a football program but as a university, the inability of university higher-ups to wrangle the type of charismatic leadership necessary to accompany O'Brien's fight became increasingly problematic.

Fast forward to O'Brien's eventual departure from the university to take the head coaching job with the NFL's Houston Texans. Joyner again headed up what - at least for the time being - appears to be a tremendous hire in the form of Vanderbilt's James Franklin. So his track record of solid choices for Penn State's head football coaching position speaks for itself.

The time of rumblings of discontent in between the two notable hires, however, also speaks for itself.

In terms of Joyner's management of the Penn State football program - obviously the breadwinner for the school's self-sustaining athletic department - his inability to provide the type of proper financial support to O'Brien became a point of contention between the two. He's a doctor by trade, and the needs of a big-time program vying to become a player on the national stage, by nearly all accounts, were outside the scope of his expertise.

In fact, the biggest decision to affect the football program's current health and future prospects had very little to do with Joyner, according to multiple Blue White Illustrated sources. The NCAA's decision last fall to reduce the sanctions against the program was due largely to a constant barrage of advocating by O'Brien, former university president Rod Erickson, and other advocates interacting on Penn State's behalf with George Mitchell's staff.

I don't know the man well enough to provide any real insight into his character. He was generally affable and professional in my dealings with him, but I can't say much more than that he was pleasant to work alongside.

And yet, none of this is enough to overcome the "original sin" of Joyner's hiring and sustained role at Penn State.

Penn State has made it clear that it wants to avoid the perception it is being run by an old boy network, especially after an old boy network allegedly got it in trouble in the first place. The inherent conflict of interest attached to Joyner's hiring created tension that lasted throughout his tenure. Whether his successor is hired immediately or in the coming weeks or months, no amount of time or positive decisions made from the position can change that.


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