January 18, 2012; Source: New York Times | On Sunday morning, former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno passed away. Paterno had been battling cancer at the same time that he was battling the scandal that exploded surrounding allegations of a sexual attack on a 10-year-old boy by former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. The information had been brought to Paterno’s attention, and he fed the information up the hierarchy to university executives, two of whom have been since indicted, but neither Paterno nor anyone else acted with any alacrity or confronted Sandusky. Particularly since Paterno’s recent death, there has been no shortage of opinions as to whether the Penn State board should or should not have fired Paterno. Philadelphia Inquirer sports columnist Bob Ford went so far as to state that the board “now seems intent on justifying its actions to the public as a substitute for actually explaining their process.” However, 12 board members have explained the process, in detail, to The New York Times.

Thanks to the Times, we now know that the phone call to Paterno telling him that he had been let go as Penn State’s football coach came from U.S. Steel CEO John P. Surma. Surma and other trustees were gathered in a room at the Penn Stater Hotel with Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett on speakerphone. The board had already decided to dismiss Penn State President Graham B. Spanier and then decided that Paterno should also be dismissed because “he had failed to take adequate action” when told about the incident. None of the 32 board members polled by Surma objected to the decision.

According to the New York Times interviews with the trustees, they “laid out what they said were three key reasons for firing Paterno: his failure to do more when told about the suspected sexual assault in 2002; what they regarded as his questioning of the board’s authority in the days after Sandusky’s arrest; and what they determined to be his inability to effectively continue coaching in the face of continuing questions surrounding the program.” Some trustees were also upset that Paterno reported the incident to two university execs, but not to the police. Others, according to the Times, “were also upset that Paterno was seen leading ‘We are Penn State’ cheers on his lawn with students and fans who had gathered after Sandusky’s arrest, which some board members viewed as insensitive.”

Like last week’s interview with Paterno in The Washington Post, this article contains powerful and sometimes stunning revelations. Here are a few of them:

  • Trustees were “floored…that Spanier did not seem to recognize the severity of the situation” and recalled him saying, “We deal with crisis every day at this university…We won’t have a problem with this.” 
  • Trustees felt that there was a lack of information being provided to them, that they were learning details from the press rather than from the university leadership. According to the Times, “the trustees quickly realized that Spanier had chosen not to keep them informed,” including virtually nothing about the questions he received when he testified in front of a grand jury in May.
  • Trustees alleged that Spanier, on his own, altered a news release that the trustees wanted to deliver by making it appear that the release was jointly issued by he and the trustees (and by diluting the language about the promised investigation).
  • The Times reported that, at one point, Spanier tried to submit his resignation, but the trustees rejected it and decided to fire him instead. 
  • Trustees said that Paterno didn’t try to contact the board before its official board meeting, but “some said that it would not have mattered, because they did not believe that he could say anything to save his job.” Because of the media encampment outside of Paterno’s home, the trustees decided to fire him by telephone, which the Times reported many trustees regret. Surma made the call and told Paterno that he was fired immediately. Rather than responding, Paterno simply hung up. Then, Paterno’s wife, Sue, called Surma to say, “After 61 years, he deserved better,” and then she hung up, too. 

Regardless of whether you think the board should or should not have fired Paterno, the Times article is a remarkable story of how a board makes decisions in a crisis. In this case, it’s also a story of an organization in freefall and a board of trustees, comprised of high-powered business and political leaders, left in the dark by university executives and the late football coach. —Rick Cohen