Friday, September 7, 2012

Donald Ford on Football Culture at Penn State

Donald Ford, Dean and Professor Emeritus at Penn State, has shared with me an important assessment, viewed through the critically important lens of history, of Penn State faculty culture surrounding PSU football.   

Dean Emeritus Ford has kindly given me permission to post his thoughts, and I am extremely pleased to be able to share them.  These comments add a significant nuance to the "Statement by a Group of Past Chairs of The Pennsylvania State University Faculty Senate Regarding the Freeh Report, the NCAA Consent Decree, and Their Academic Implications August 28, 2012" and to my own critical endorsement of that statement (e.g., A Critical Endorsement of the Past Chairs Statement Regarding the Freeh Report and NCAA Consent Decree).   I really appreciate it.  I welcome comments and reactions.

I understand the Senate is having some discussions about recent faulty reasoning and actions based in part on allegations of a faulty culture surrounding PSU football.  I thought perhaps a little history might help demonstrate how ridiculous those allegations are.  I have been at PSU since 1952, and worked with every president from Milton Eisenhower through Graham Spanier. The history begins with Milton who became president in 1950 (we were personal friends and he told me the following).  He immediately discovered the football program was being run by two members of the Board of Trustees.  He informed the Board that was unacceptable to him, he would present proposals for changes at the next Board meeting, and hinted broadly he wouldn't stay under present conditions.  Before the next meeting  those running the current arrangement gave Milton their support.  He found a young man named Ernie McCoy in New England whom he thought had the ethics and skill needed to clean things up and build a proper program for student athletes. Ernie built a strong program that emphasized requiring being a good student to be eligible for intercollegiate athletics.

     In 1950, any undergraduate who had failing grades was automatically flunked out of Penn Statt.  Bob Bernreuter, a senior psychology professor, convinced Milton those students weren't stupid but got off to a poor start for reasons that could usually be corrected.  He proposed creation of a program to which such students could be referred to see if they could succeed rather than immediately flunking them out.  Milton got the Senate and board of trustees to approve trying that idea.  It was called the Division of Intermediate Registration.(DIR) Over the next three years 80% of those students recovered and eventually graduated with good to outstanding records.  Bernreuter then said to Milton: "We have demonstrated we know why young students fail.  Why don't we create a program to prevent the failure."  Milton got the Senate and the Board to approve that idea, and a unit called the Division of Counseling (DOC) was created. (It absorbed DIR) A key focus was to work with students and their parents to help students get off to a good start.  That not only worked but won the gratitude of most parents.  I helped build and ran that program from 1955 to 1967.  (it still exists with a different name).

     That emphasis on promoting student academic success, and giving them a second chance if necessary is the University context in which Joe Paterno became head football coach. 

     History reveals that was also a time when powerful football coaches in big time football programs used many unethical procedures in recruiting and dealing with young players, and placed little emphasis on good academic performance.

     Joe and I started our Penn State careers at about the same time, became friends, and often cooperated in helping students succeed academically, so I have personal knowledge of his values and methods.

     Joe picked up the mantel Ernie McCoy created, and publicly made it clear he intended to demonstrate it was possible to have athletic teams composed of players who were both good students and good athletes.  He called it the Grand Experiment, because the general view that jocks were poor students had some validity.  He adopted the DOC rational of cultivating good academic performance from the beginning and giving students a second chance if needed.  He explicitly taught students those goals and values and demanded the same of his coaching staff.  For example, I was a Dean for 10 years.  If a faculty member told me a coach was trying to get a grade changed, I simply reported it to Joe and either that coach stopped doing that or lost his job.  His approach succeeded in producing both good students and championship caliber teams.  That success was a catalyst for producing momentum for cleaning up football programs around the country.  Few people's lives have had such a big human impact.  Moreover, Joe's players believed in the values he taught and applied them in helping to break the "color barrier" against African American men playing collegiate football.

     Joe also implemented Penn State's Faculty Senate and Board of Trustee approved  "second chance" policies and practices, for the primary goal was to help them graduate rather than keep them eligible to play football..  I helped him design helping services for football players analogous to those we used in DOC.  He established clear rules that if you didn't make your grades you didn't get to play.  That may not seem special now but it was revolutionary in the 1950s and 60s.  Joe put himself between academically struggling players and the press because he knew making their difficulties public would make their efforts to become better students harder.  The press often complained about that  but Joe stayed firm.

     Imagine yourself trying to simultaneously  "father" 100 pseudo sons.  Most of whom had been high school stars and whose fathers expected the same in college (and sometimes gave Joe lots of criticism at their lack of success>)  Imagine many who got through high school without doing much studying, or some who came from  fatherless families, or from poverty conditions.  For some, their best and perhaps only chance of  building a better future life depended on their athletic prowess.  Joe and Sue, with the help of his coaches, took that on as a teaching responsibility, even sometimes taking a young man into their home for awhile.  Not many people would care that much.'  Finally, imagine having to adapt to (and help his players adapt to) trouble producing changes in youth culture, such as use of recreational drugs.

    Now imagine the time and effort demanded by the combined goals of promoting the positive academic and personal development of every member of his teams and producing championship football teams.  I have had some big jobs but to me what Joe & Sue did seems an almost impossible load.

     Throughout all that (and much more as a public figure) there was not one incident of intentional  unethical, immoral, or self aggrandizing behavior.  That is why he became a nationally influential icon and his program nationally admired.

     Now his lifetime of service to others and promotion of sound behavior in athletics is being destroyed by the fearful and unsound actions of powerful others.  They have violated one of the most sacred propositions of our society - a person is considered innocent until proven guilty.  And that has put in question in the public mind the soundness of our entire university culture.

     Our Faculty Senate cannot change the past, but perhaps representing the core of what a University is, our senate might find ways of restoring the public reputation Joe's lifetime of service to others has earned, and strengthen public recognition of the quality of our academic culture.  Our faculty senate is the only leadership left with the strength and credibility to help shape the future.   With its leader ship role, prestige, and reputation for sound scholarship, a careful and objective evaluation of the current situation and actions could produce a persuasive document that could discredit or override the inaccurate misrepresentations of the evidence.

     There is no faulty "football culture" at Penn State.  That subculture has historically manifest the efforts of academic leaders here to create a sound and humane academic culture.

I agree with this assessment about "football culture" and its relationship to the realities at Penn State.  As I have discussed at greater length elsewhere, I am more concerned about other cultural deficiencies--and principally the move toward more hierarchical governance cultures in governance within and beyond athletics. But that problem lies beyond Penn State's engagement with sport. Dean Emeritus Ford speaks wisdom here as well: "In sixty years of University life I have learned that there times when top level administrative leadership becomes dysfunctional it is desirable and useful for other levels and kinds of leadership to step in.  We had to do that when the Viet Nam campus violence was growing at Penn State.  Collectively, the faculty has great power if they chose to use it, in part because they are the only ones the Trustees can't push around."


  1. Of course Dean Ford is correct in describing the contours of what became known in the Paterno years as the "Grand Experiment," and no Penn Stater has any reason to be anything but proud of this extraordinary achievement, which people should be reminded of at every opportunity now more than ever. But the Dean doesn't seem to recognize that the greater the virtues of this program, the more there was motivation to protect against anything negative being disclosed that could tar this reputation. That was the gist of the Freeh Report, and whether you agree with its conclusions or not, there is some plausibility to that claim, which further evidence will come to substantiate or disconfirm over time. At the moment the evidence is a very mixed bag. Outsiders, especially those who resented the pride that Penn Staters took in this achievement, have rushed to pile on with criticism now that they have been given the opportunity and experience Schadenfreude at the thought of seeing the once sterling reputation of the university brought low by the exposure of Sandusky's misdeeds. So, while the Dean is right in everything he says about the positive side of the culture surrounding the football program, he just misses the point entirely about its vulnerability to just the kind of overprotectiveness that culture promoted in some of those who had the most to lose by its becoming tarnished. The jury is still out on that side of the culture, but if there is a silver lining in all the dark clouds here, it is that the exposure of the downside will make it very difficult ever again to motivate anyone to do what Spanier, Curley, Schultz, and Paterno have been accused of doing.

  2. For readers information:

    The Division of Counseling (DOC) became the Division of Undergraduate Studies after the Faculty Senate recommended its creation on February 6, 1973 with the Board of Trustees officially establishing its creation on October 1, 1973.

    Don Ford (my father) was the founding Dean of the College of Human Development (1966-77) which became the College of Health and Human Development in 1987 with the merger of the Colleges of Human Development and Health, Physical Education, and Recreation.

    Douglas Ford
    Asst. Dean Undergraduate Education
    College of Health and Human Development

  3. Interesting commentary. Out in the boonies, far from Happy Valley, we call what happened to Joe Paterno and negating his accomplishments as man, mentor, coach "Throwing the baby out with the bathwater." I don't care a fig about football, but I DO care that a good man was sent to his grave without due process.

  4. When the conferences were being shaken up they would say X should join Y conference because they are a good cultural fit. What exactly does that mean? In terms of college football, is there any method of operations that does not involve students getting drunk in the parking lot, corporations buying sky boxes, and etc? How exactly is Missouri football culture more in line with Kentucky football culture than it is with Kansas, Iowa, or Oklahoma? Does this actually mean anything or is it just smoke and mirrors?

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