Next step for Penn State: repair sullied reputation

Just days before Jerry Sandusky was convicted on multiple counts of child sex abuse, an email was sent to thousands of Penn State alumni with a simple message:

“We are ONE TEAM. Join us.”

Inside was a link to a website for purchasing tickets to football games.

After seven wrenching months of utter turmoil, shock and sadness, Penn State is looking toward the future and trying to change the subject.

The Nittany Lions open their season on Sept. 1 at 107,000-seat Beaver Stadium against Ohio University. For legions of Penn State fans, it can’t come fast enough.

“Time is going to have to heal the image and perception,” former Nittany Lions quarterback Todd Blackledge said. “That’s going to happen sooner for some, later for others. It’s going to take time for people to think about Penn State and Penn State football without thinking about the Jerry Sandusky scandal.”

How much time will be in large part determined by new coach Bill O’Brien and his team.

O’Brien spent three weeks on the road in May trying to drum up support among alumni and fans still stinging from the loss of Joe Paterno, who was fired in November and died in January.

O’Brien made a name for himself as a New England Patriots assistant coach working with quarterback Tom Brady, but his new job will require far more than the ability to dissect defenses.

“He can play a prominent role in the healing of Penn State,” said Lou Holtz, who coached at Notre Dame, Arkansas and South Carolina during a Hall of Fame career.

In sports, winning and repairing a reputation often go hand in hand.

“A lot of it is getting back to basics and focusing on what you do well,” said Jeremy Robinson-Leon of the Gordon Group, a New York-based public relations firm that handles crisis management. “Focus on games. Focus on winning. That will help them get past this.

“But it’s going to take time. This isn’t over.”

Far from it.

The 68-year-old Sandusky, Paterno’s former longtime defensive coordinator, was convicted Friday of sexually abusing 10 boys over a 15-year period. He will be sentenced in the next three months and likely will spend the rest of his life in jail.

Two former Penn State administrators, including athletic director Tim Curley, are awaiting trial on charges of lying to the grand jury investigating Sandusky and not complying with a state law about reporting suspected child abuse.

Still ongoing is a university trustees’ investigation spearheaded by former FBI director Louis Freeh. The findings could be released in August and will be shared with the NCAA and Big Ten. Both want to determine whether Penn State violated any of their rules.

The investigations and legal proceedings could take years to play out, and because the scandal involves one of the most famous college football programs in the country, it is almost guaranteed to do so in the spotlight.

“There is great reputational risk in athletics,” said Southern California athletic director Pat Haden, who was hired shortly after the Trojans’ football and basketball programs were hit with NCAA sanctions in 2010.

“Institutions like USC spend more than 100 years building a positive reputation and gaining respect in the community, then athletic shenanigans can impact that perception for a long time. If the chemistry department makes a mistake, it’s not going to end up on the front page of the newspaper.”

The hiring of O’Brien at first was greeted with skepticism and criticism by some former Penn State players, who wanted someone familiar, someone with ties to the school and Paterno, to guide the program through some very dark days.

Robinson-Leon, however, said it was wise for Penn State to go outside the “family.”

“They needed to bring in somebody who could not be perceived as an insider,” he said.

By hiring a first-time head coach, Penn State could be signaling that the football program – and its coach – will no longer be an isolated and powerful entity that seems to operate separately from the university, Robinson-Leon said.

“Penn State was criticized publicly for fostering a culture that ultimately allowed these heinous crimes to go unpunished,” he said. “The football program needs to regain the trust of the community and the public.

“Penn State needs to … demonstrate the football program will be held accountable.”

O’Brien was clearly trying to do just that during Penn State’s 18-city coaches’ caravan that stretched from Buffalo, N.Y., to Richmond, Va., and Cleveland to Boston.

“We’re one team,” O’Brien told The Associated Press in an interview last month before a tour stop in New York City. “This athletic department is a part of this university. This football program is a big part, but just a part of this athletic department.

“We’ve got a new era of Penn State athletics. A new era of Penn State football. We’ve got to respect the past. We’ve got to learn from the past. But we’ve got to move forward.”

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