In the form of John Surma, the iron-willed CEO of U.S. Steel, Penn State finally found its adult, finally found its leader, finally found someone who wasn't afraid to stand up and make the unpopular decision.
Surma announced the Penn State Board of Trustees decision Wednesday night to fire legendary football coach Joe Paterno and school president Graham Spanier in the wake of an ugly child molestation case that had rocked the university to its foundation.
"These decisions were made after careful deliberations and in the best interests of the university as a whole," Surma said.
The decision will be fought. Students immediately took to the streets. Some alumni fumed. Players and recruits will, no doubt, feel betrayed. Some will point to Paterno being fired over the phone, a rather impersonal end to a man who poured his life into the place. There is no doubt that Paterno, after 46 previously scandal-free years at the school, has a huge base of support.
None of that should or did matter though. Surma and the board finally did what Penn State's campus leaders wouldn't – the right thing regardless of the repercussions.
Now comes a task even more difficult than forcing the iconic Paterno out – starting the healing process so Penn State can emerge from the ugliest scandal in college sports history with a program that can return to being a point of pride for the institution.
"You have to have unity," Baylor basketball coach Scott Drew said Wednesday night. Drew took over at Baylor in 2003 after a scandal involving the murder of one player by another and piled on with significant NCAA sanctions.
"For any team, or any school in this case, to handle adversity, it has to have unity or it's not going to make it through," said Drew, who has built the program stronger than before the scandal. "I've always had everyone's support at Baylor, people were on the same page."
Accomplishing that without the full-support of Paterno will be very difficult. The fired Baylor basketball coach, Dave Bliss, was a popular, but hardly beloved figure. The Baylor community was so aghast at the scandal it immediately pulled together.
The firing of Paterno ensures that certain groups will not immediately offer their support of the program. This has the feel of Indiana firing Bob Knight, a move that the basketball team is still working to bridge.
Piecing back together the fractured fan base will be the first challenge.
[Forde: Firing prompts chaos, sadness at PSU]
"You have to have the backing from your school, from your community, from your alumni," Drew said. "Peer pressure is a big thing with high school recruits, if they're being told, 'why are you going there?' it matters. You need them to see a packed arena, people positive about the program, everyone working together.
"Here's the thing, it takes time."
Paterno was a guiding force at Penn State for more than half a century. He delivered more than 409 career victories. His humble demeanor, his commitment to NCAA compliance and his generous donations back to the university set a tone in idyllic State College.
Integrity matters. Honor counts.
And then came the scandal that blew so much of that out of the water. Jerry Sandusky, Paterno's long-time defensive coordinator, was charged Saturday on 40 counts of abuse of children capping decades of molestation.
[Wetzel on YSR: An indelible stain]
Even worse for the school came the tale of a 2002 incident when then graduate assistant, Mike McQueary, walked in on Sandusky and a 10-year-old boy in the shower of the supposed-to-be-empty Penn State locker room. McQueary told Paterno the next day and Paterno passed the information onto his athletic director, who has since been charged with failure to report the abuse.
After that Paterno did nothing according to the grand jury's "finding of fact" and his repeated statements this week. He didn't call the police. He didn't follow up with his superiors.
He had no problem as Sandusky maintained access to the Nittany Lions football facility, even working out in the weight room last week, long after Paterno had been forced to testify to the grand jury and knew Sandusky was under investigation for child molestation.
Paterno's supporters found excuses to keep him, but when no reasonable explanation for his inaction emerged, Penn State had no choice.
Paterno's almost sole defense is that he fulfilled his legal obligations and did nothing more. He has stated that he was told of "something inappropriate involving (Sandusky)" during an "incident in the shower of our locker room facility." He told his athletic director. He never called the cops. He apparently never followed up on how the school's investigation was going.
Inside the bubble his defenders suggest that he didn't have the full story. Outside of it people wonder how the words "inappropriate" and "shower" involving an old man and a young boy weren't enough.
[Slideshow: Paterno fired during 61st season at PSU]
The risk of having Paterno cheered by 110,000 fans in Saturday's home finale against Nebraska become the indelible image of Penn State's response to this scandal was too much. So too were the thought of ugly road receptions at Ohio State and Wisconsin.
The decision was simple. Carrying it out required a strong hand; standing up to Joe Paterno was no simple act.
Surma handled it brilliantly. He stood tall and strong and laid down the decision. Let the fallout rumble, the board of trustees will not be swayed.
The school needs leadership like this desperately now. As much as some wounds will not heal quickly, especially if Paterno puts up a fight, the need for someone to convey the importance of the unity that Drew mentions, of moving forward, of coming together to make Penn State as great as it can be is paramount.
The school needs a central figure that can talk it through the storm. Maybe it's Surma. Maybe he's part of a team of people.
This remains a tremendous university. If anything, the troubles have shown the strength and determination and heart of its vast alumni base. In football terms, it has all the resources and facilities and proximity to talent to thrive in the seasons to come.
First it needs to find some common ground. It needs everyone to put this ugly scandal behind, to find the shared principles and vision for the future that its beloved chant "We Are … Penn State" is supposed to stand for.
The clean sweep has been made. The rebuilding needs to start.
The sooner, the better.
- Penn State
- Joe Paterno