New Penn State president Eric Barron is on record in the past that he believes successful athletics is important to a university. Judging from my interpretation of an hour-long interview several Tribune-Review reporters conducted with him Thursday, Barron’s recognition of sports is more than mere lip service.
Barron repeatedly referenced sports – sometimes, just in passing; other times, to drive home a point or make an analogy – over the course of a wide-ranging discussion in the Trib’s D.L. Clark Building offices. Barron, of course, was here to talk about more than – and more important things than – just sports. Some of the Trib’s finest newsside reporters ,Debra Erdley and Adam Smeltz, detailed that. As the lone reporter representing sports (although two Trib sports editors were present), I’ll offer some of my initial impressions of Barron’s opinions of the athletics issues facing Penn State.
The main bar for the Sports section for Friday’s print editions mostly is centered around Barron publicly supporting the idea that the NCAA sanctions levied on the football program be softened when former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell releases his next PSU athletics integrity progress report in August.
While, on face value, this might not be surprising – after all, shouldn’t a sitting university president be expected to always stand up for the school and its best interests? You’d think, but remember, it was Barron’s predecessor, Rodney Erickson, who himself signed the consent decree for the penalties in July 2012. Since, Erickson’s public tact has more involved a conciliatory we’ll-take-what-they-give us tone toward the NCAA than one in which he publicly campaigned for sanctions relief. Barron, initially at least, appears to opt more for the latter. (To be fair, for a variety of reasons the political airs have evolved sharply over the past two years toward a more pro-Penn State, anti-NCAA position being given sympathy).
Here are some of Barron’s other football-related thoughts:
- On the school’s hiring process in January that resulted in James Franklin, who himself had been tied to an alleged rape cover-up and was brought to a school that was and is still reeling from arguably the most horrific story involving alleged rape cover-up in the history of sports:
“I’ve seen or heard nothing that would make me question it.”
- On his initial meeting with Franklin:
“I have had lunch with him, and I was impressed with how student-centered he is. And to the degree to which one of his objectives is to break the all-time record for the grade-point average for football. And we had discussions on lots of different topics, including if a student doesn’t go to class, how do you get them to go to class. And now we could apply this to people at 8:00 in the morning and have them run laps if they don’t show up for class – I don’t know if it would work. But we talked about a lot of things like that, and I felt very good about the lunch that I had in terms of his attitude and his focus and what his objectives are. And of course he’ll be tested very publicly, won’t he?”
- On if he sought personal assurances from Franklin that he was involved in no wrongdoing in connection to Vanderbilt rape case:
“This was not a, you know, ‘Let’s walk through this,’ kind of case… we didn’t talk that way.”
- On how he plans on dealing with the issue of Joe Paterno’s legacy at Penn State:
“It’s a completely different situation, but when I was shortlisted to be president at Florida State, Bobby Bowden was fired two hours before that meeting. And partly from the viewpoint no president would take the job if they had to deal with a legend. And I quickly realized that about 35 percent of the people thought that was outrageous, and 35 percent of the people felt it was high time, and the 30 percent in the middle were silent. And so you’ve got, really, a lot of opinions, and it took three years to get to the point where Bobby came back. Right, to my wife’s credit, to the point of her calling up Ann Bowden and having lunch with her twice, and it doesn’t work to sit there and do it on the – no offense – on the front page of a paper, and it doesn’t work with saying, ‘I’m going to go do this and this.’ This is a period of healing, and it takes time. But you can count on the fact that it’s important to me and I’m going to do my best to help.”
- Barron was asked a follow-up to press on dealing with the Paterno situation:
“You’ll have to give me time. I haven’t been here very long, and I just described a three-year process for someone who was fired. And this is, you know, more sensitive, and does take time. I will say this: Every single one of those alumni, no matter where they sit, cares deeply about the institution. That’s, at least, a foundation for moving forward, I think, in very positive ways. Every single person, they’re motivated by their love of the institution. So I can think a lot of conflicts that sometimes can be managed if you don’t have that foundation at all. I’m optimistic that we will make improvements but I’m not going to give you a time schedule or a process.”
- On the status of the athletic director’s position (Penn State awkwardly removed the “acting” from Dave Joyner’s title in January 2013… but at the same time stated that when a new university president took over in mid-2014 that a “national search” would be conducted for the position):
“I know what president Erickson announced, including that when the new president comes in, that’ll be time for a search. And we have other positions that are also an interim basis, and so I’m busy doing my assessment, and I tell people I would have to be convinced not to follow through on what president Erickson said.”
- Finally, Barron was asked what his reaction was to the Freeh Report:
“Anybody who’s been at Penn State or near Penn State or certainly graduated from Penn State felt just an incredible amount of pain and sadness. It’s awful. And obviously I wasn’t here as the institution went through that, so I just saw from afar in terms of that level of pain. And I saw a lot of alumni because one of the things you realize even though you’re a dean and people look at you and you’re fundraising and I’m talking about you and about giving back – and then I leave and some people that will sit there and say, ‘OK, so he was fundraising for them, but he didn’t care about me as a person.’ I think one of the things about the Penn State family is you really do care about people as people, and so even though I was at a completely different institution, I’d go visit Penn State alumni and go have dinner with them and sometimes stay at their homes because these are friends – and this hurt. So wherever you look there was that pain because nobody sees Penn State that way.
But beyond that, I came in 2 ½ years later and, so what is my reaction to the Freeh Report? Well, my reaction is there were 119 different recommendations and I’m looking at a spreadsheet that says, ‘We’ve done this, we’ve done this, we’ve gone beyond on this one, we’ve created this, these four are pending but the following actions have already taken.’ And I’m looking at it and saying, ‘How on earth could an institution manage that in such a deliberate, aggressive fashion to make sure this doesn’t happen?’ And not an instance that is focused on this event, but rather focusing on an institution in which this ethical standing is extraordinarily important.
So truthfully my reaction to the Freeh Report was, ‘This institution has just become a model institution for addressing issues like them.’ Because what I saw first was all the steps that they had taken.”