Home > Business Strategy, Consulting Strategies, Leadership > Anatomy of a Crisis – Paterno and Penn State

Anatomy of a Crisis – Paterno and Penn State

It only takes one mistake…

Joe Paterno

Legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno is stepping down at the end of the season and leaving Happy Valley in disgrace. Not for anything that happened on the football field; not for wins and losses; and not even for NCAA violations. His 61 years at the same institution (46 as head coach) ends abruptly because he made poor decisions and turned a blind eye to issues involving his subordinates.

Read ESPN story

Paterno was aware of allegations against his defensive coordinator and friend Jerry Sandusky, who is now being accused of molesting many young boys from 1994-2010. Paterno turned in the information and left it in the hands of his boss. Big mistake. His boss is now being charged with perjury and obstruction of justice. The school’s board of trustees are scampering around trying to quell the uproar. The crisis has now escalated beyond the sports world.

So you may ask, what did Coach Paterno do wrong? He has not been charged with any legal improprieties. Why has he become the central figure of this giant mess? Why will he ultimately be included in civil lawsuits that will continue to haunt his days?

Joe Paterno is Penn State. His brand and reputation over 46 years as the head man at the helm of a successful football program makes him the face of the university. Good, bad, or indifferent; that is the reality.

As CEO of the football program, he bears the ultimate responsibility for what happens on and off the field. Issues dealing with wins and losses may just cost you your job. Issues as detestable as what happened with Sandusky will cost you your job, tarnish your reputation, and potentially hurt the university in a myriad of ways.

Paterno is guilty of doing the minimum. He handed off the issue to his Athletic Director. His next mistake was the killer. He did nothing. He blindly put his trust in his boss to deal with it and then went back to coaching and recruiting. He allowed Sandusky to stay around the program and the campus. In fact, in 1998, the police investigated Sandusky for this type of behavior. At that point, the guy should be gone. Should be allowed nowhere near the campus.  Paterno had that control. Instead, Paterno stuck his head in the sand and left it to others to clean up. Here is the problem…when you are the face of the institution and the CEO, you’d better make sure things get resolved.

Paterno told the board of trustees to not spend another minute thinking about him. Really? Paterno wants to go out on his terms and finish the season. I say no. He forfeited that opportunity. The trustees are now the ones in crisis management. What does their communication plan say? What do they need to do to salvage any semblance of reputation for their academic university that has always been viewed as “clean?” In my estimation, you don’t allow one of the central figures in a cover up to have a coronation. Heck, last night, the 84-year old Paterno made the decision that it was okay to encourage a pep rally outside of his home with 3,000 students by leading a “We are Penn State” cheer and a hearty “Beat Nebraska!” Yeah, like that is important. Disturbing. The board of trustees need to show courage in decision-making and dismiss him. If you were in their seats, what would you do?

Hindsight is 20/20. I get that. However, that is why it is so important for executives and business owners to think about this in advance. By virtue of having employees, these things are liable to happen. They are vulnerabilities that you face. How do you respond to employees, the media, your customers, your supply chain, your family? If you don’t have a plan in place now, then you risk your business and your reputation.

If the mighty Joe Paterno, who built an empire in over 60 years, can fall in 5 days, how quickly can you and your organization fall?

© 2011 Dan Weedin. All Rights Reserved

  1. November 9, 2011 at 8:26 pm

    Dan,

    Well said. You make a great point in that what was built over sixty years can be eroded in five days. Unfortunately for Joe he was single minded in his focus; a focus that placed football front and center and not the well being of young boys. Wow, how clueless!

  2. November 9, 2011 at 8:28 pm

    Thanks Hugh. Yes, and my question is…

    Does that single-minded focus exist in organizations where poor behavior is tolerated for success and eventually erodes confidence, moral, and reputation?

  3. November 9, 2011 at 9:02 pm

    Dan,
    Excellent article. The tragedy is not the damage done to a coach’s legacy, or the reputation of a Div I University football program. The tragedy is the damage done to those boys.

    A coach’s legacy and a football program don’t matter in comparison–that is what seems to have been missed by those in charge at PSU.

  4. November 9, 2011 at 9:24 pm

    So true, Tony. In fact, that’s what is so disturbing about the “pep rally” outside Paterno’s home. He briefly said, “Let’s pray for the families,” and quickly shuffled off to a rally cry to beat Nebraska! That in and of itself should lead the trustees to know that this circus needs to at least be controlled…

  5. November 11, 2011 at 12:09 am

    Hi Dan,
    Excellent article you wrote here. Enjoyed reading it, especially your caveat at the end. Here’s another blog on Penn State, but with a slightly different message.

    http://thefocuseddecisionmaker.com/2011/11/10/penn-state-university-decision-making-biases-of-its-leaders/

  6. Dan Weedin
    November 11, 2011 at 12:17 am

    Hi Mary,

    Thanks for your comments and the article. I only had a chance to peruse it, but I will give it a good read tonight. Thanks for sharing!

    Dan

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