Over 16 years as Penn State’s president Graham Spanier earned a reputation for rarely turning down a media opportunity, no subject unworthy of his comment. He was known for never hesitating to personally call wealthy alums when a fundraising goal needed to be met.
You could hardly find an NCAA committee he didn’t sit on, if not chair, a chance to extend his influence beyond just State College. He’s done guest stints with the marching band, participated in intramural tournaments and run with the bulls wearing a Penn State shirt, lots of look-at-me everyman stuff.
Affable, likable and always available Graham Spanier was everywhere.
On Saturday the world collapsed around Penn State with the breaking of a sexual molestation and systematic cover-up case inside its athletic department. It’s left former football assistant Jerry Sandusky facing a slew of assault charges and athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz accused of perjury and failure to report the abuse of a minor.
The campus is overrun with anger, accusation and satellite trucks. Across the country Penn State is the center of the ugliest scandal college athletics has ever seen. The whole thing is a disaster, hour by hour sinking even deeper and deeper.
And Graham Spanier is suddenly nowhere to be found.
Not a spoken word from Mr. President. Not a single interview with the media he once courted. Not a speech. Not a rally. Not a meaningful explanation to his students and alumni.
Penn State is desperate for a leader, desperate for some stability, desperate for an adult to stand up tall like the school always thought it would and Spanier is somewhere under a desk, hiding.
[Related: Forde: At Penn State, doubt and pain]
The focus has zeroed in on Joe Paterno, the school’s legendary football coach. And while there are plenty of unanswered questions about his decision-making, it isn’t JoePa who runs the place. It’s not JoePa who oversees the entire campus, police department included. It wasn’t JoePa who signed off on the pathetic decision by Curley and Schultz to simply ban Sandusky from bringing children on campus rather than contact the cops.
“Call the police immediately,” Pennsylvania State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan said Monday. “How difficult is that? It’s not a high standard.”
Joe Paterno will do his weekly media obligations as scheduled on Tuesday, a Big Ten teleconference and then his usual press briefing. Penn State will try to keep the questions to football-only (good luck with that) but the old coach is at least willing to show his face in public.
Who knows where Spanier will be? Who knows where he has been? How do Sunday and Monday, two of the worst days the school will ever know, cruise by without a peep from its president?
There are as many questions about Spanier’s decision-making as Paterno’s, but all we’ve gotten from Spanier is a bizarre, inappropriate and heartless statement on Saturday.
“The allegations about a former coach are troubling, and it is appropriate that they be investigated thoroughly,” it read. “Protecting children requires the utmost vigilance.
“With regard to the other presentments, I wish to say that Tim Curley and Gary Schultz have my unconditional support. I have known and worked daily with Tim and Gary for more than 16 years. I have complete confidence in how they have handled the allegations about a former University employee.
“Tim Curley and Gary Schultz operate at the highest levels of honesty, integrity and compassion. I am confident the record will show that these charges are groundless and that they conducted themselves professionally and appropriately.”
That's it. That’s all of it. Perhaps the biggest scandal higher education has ever seen and that’s what Spanier thought was all he needed to convey.
“The views of the President do not reflect the views of the students,” read a sign hanging on campus Monday.
In his statement Spanier expressed no concern for the victims. He conveyed no shock or regret that some of the alleged molestations occurred on his campus. There was no horror over the nature of the crimes. No apology for not doing more. No explanation for why he didn’t ask more questions, which may have led to someone demanding that they find the abused boy so at the very, very least they could ensure his safety and offer him the counseling he no doubt needed.
Nope. Nothing. Just nothing.
All he did was offer “unconditional support” for his two employees, an unfathomable line at this time. Unconditional? Really? So if Curley and Schultz are guilty then Spanier will still support them? That’s the definition of “unconditional."
“A university president defending an indicted employee?” Pennsylvania State Sen. Jeffrey Piccola told the Harrisburg Patriot-News. “I mean, he shouldn’t make any judgment on guilt or innocence. That’s not his role. He needs to distance himself from that.”
Spanier has distanced himself from everything since then. It’s like he’s figures if he keeps his head down long enough, the blame will fall on everyone but him.
On Monday Attorney General Linda Kelly was definitive in saying Paterno is not a target in the on-going investigation. When asked about Spanier, she wouldn’t comment.
The grand jury’s “finding of fact” said Spanier did not know that the incident involving Sandusky was sexual in nature. Kelly, however, noted that he was the final administrator that “reviewed and approved … without further inquiry on his part” the unusual decision by Curley and Schultz to ban Sandusky bringing children on campus. Wouldn't that be a red flag that might spur additional questions?
[Related: Jerry Sandusky was at Penn State last week]
Spanier himself never called the cops, not even the Penn State’s own force, which just four years prior had conducted a lengthy investigation into other molestation accusations against Sandusky.
In 2002 did Spanier know about the 1998 inquiry?
"That investigation was handled by Penn State University's police department,” Kelly said, the emphasis clear in her voice.
Perhaps Spanier is hiding out because he fears saying anything might cause him to be prosecuted. If so, then he’s not fit for the job. He must seek at least a temporary leave, if not a full resignation. The school needs someone credible to be in charge.
Instead Spanier seems intent on saving his own career rather than Penn State’s reputation.
The one silver lining of this ugly story has been the reaction of the Penn State family at large. This is a proud university, one where integrity meant something, and the scandal has been met not with excuse making but appropriate disgust.
Failed by its leaders, the community is rising up. This isn’t the real Penn State everyone is saying. This isn’t what we’re about, what we’ll ever, ever tolerate. Through these most trying of times, the rank and file – students, faculty, parents, alums – have fallen back on a shared sense of values, ethics and purpose. They won’t allow this to define their school.
It’s the best coming out of the worst.
It’d be a fine message for Spanier to express, someone to show there is a steady hand on the rudder as the storm rages. Instead he’s failing every test of leadership.
No explanations. No accountability. No apologies.
There’s been just a single abhorrent statement, self-centered and inappropriate, unconditional support for the accused, no mention of those victimized kids.
Instead the plan appears to be to send Joe Paterno out there, 84-years-old and hard of hearing. Let JoePa be the face of this thing. Let JoePa handle the fire, answer the questions, get picked apart by the national media. Let it all be about JoePa.